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Herta Müller (b. 1953)


Romanian-born German novelist, essayist, and poet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Much of Herta Müller's fiction, written in poetic, metaphorical style, draws on her experience of growing up and living in the bleak atmosphere of a totalitarian state, in this case, in Ceausescu's Romania.

"And then I have the feeling that whenever someone dies he leaves behind a sack of words. And barbers, and nail-clippers—I always think of them, too, since the dead no longer need them. And they don't ever lose buttons either." (from The Land of Green Plums, 1994, transl. by Michael Hofmann)

Herta Müller was born to a German family, in Nitzkydorf, a village in the Banat, where as it was said – with exaggersation – that the only ethnic Romanian in the village was the policeman. (In 1941, only a third of the 3000 villagers spoke Romanian.) During World War II, when the country was occupied by Germany, Müller's father served in the Waffen SS. After the war he worked as a truck driver. Müller's mother, Catarina, was deported to a work-camp in the Soviet Union for five years. Her marriage was a result of a necessity. "Ohne den Krieg hätte ich deinen Vater nie geheiratet," she later confessed to her daughter.

Müller studied German and Romanian in the university in Timosoara. While at the university, Müller became acquainted with the Aktionsgruppe Banat, made up of young writers of German language, among them Richard Wagner, who was also a member of the Communist party. The group was accused of plotting against the regime and one of its members, William Totok, was sent to prison. Officially the group was banned after 1975, but it had an important role in the development of opposition against the totalitarian nationalist-communist system.

Müller began writing after her father died. "I had to turn back and reflect back upon my childhood, my mother, my father, my village," she later said. From 1977 to 1979, Müller was employed as a translator at the tractor factory Tehnometal, translating manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. Due to her refusal to cooperate with the Securitate, Ceausescu's secret police, and serve as an informant, Müller was dismissed. A file was opened on her, and eventually it consisted of three volumes and 914 pages. To support herself, Müller worked as a teacher in a kindergarten and gave private German lessons.

Labelled as a "parasitic element" (like Joseph Brodsky in the 1960s in Leningrad), Müller became the target of repeated threats. Once she was accused of having sex with eight Arab students in exchange for Western tights and cosmetics. "I didn't know a single Arab student," Müller recalled in an article, published in Die Zeit (July 2009), in which she told about her long-lasting harassment.

Müller finished in 1979 the manuscript for Nadirs (Niederungen), consisting of fourteen prose miniatures and the long title story, but it took three years before the work appeared, in mutilated form. When the uncensored version was smuggled to Germany and published there by Rotbuch-Verlag in 1984 with critical acclaim, Müller was not allowed to travel. After the permission was granted, the secret service created a smear campaign against her, spreading a rumor that she was, in fact, an agent for the Securitate. Müller was also forbidden to publish in Romania. In 1987 Müller succeeded in emigrating to Germany with Richard Wagner, who was her husband at the time. Ceausescu's regime was overthrown in 1989 and the dictator himself was hastily tried and executed with his wife. Müller has, however, argued, that she was still under observation when she visited Romania twenty years later.

The community of Banat, with its traditional gender roles and old-fashioned values, has fuctioned as a microcosmos of the whole repressive society in Müller's early fiction. Noteworthy, Müller has refused to be classed as a feminist writer, stating in an interview: "Ich bin keine Feministin. Ich bin vielleicht eine Individualistin und ich bin eine Frau." The dark and coldly intense Niederungen portrayed a dying Banat-Swabian village from the point of view of a child. In this work Müller used the image of the croaking frog as a metaphor for the German minority: "Everybody brought a frog along when they immigrated." The Land of Green Plums (1994), written after the death of Müller's two friends in suspicious circumstances, was about a group of young people, whose friendship is destroyd by the deleterious effects of a totalitarian society. Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (1992) depicted life in provincial Romania during the late 1980s. As in her other stories, Müller is concerned in The Appointment (1997) more with the private world of an isolated individual than the collective experience. During a tram ride the thoughts of the narrator, a young factory worker summoned to interrogation, turn and twist as unexpectedly as the sudden twists and turns of the tram. To get out of the country, she has sewn desperate messages into the linings of jackets bound for Italy, saying "Marry me", with her name and address.

Traveling on One Leg (1989) presented the problems of adjustment of Irene, a 30-year old Romanian-German immigrant, who is drawn into intimate relationships with three men. "The action in this volume may be slight, but Irene's innermost consciousness -- where the political has indeed become the personal -- is magnificently portrayed." (William Ferguson, The New York Times, February 21, 1999) In his own works Richard Wagner has also written about his departure from Romania and arrival in the West in the stories Ausreiseantrag (1988) and Begrüßungsgeld (1989). Both feature the same characters, the disillusioned journalist called Stirner, and his German-teacher-wife.

Müller has published lectures on writing, entitled Der Teufel sitzt im Spiegel (1991), journalistic pieces (Eine warme Kartoffel ist ein warmes Bett, 1992), essays (Hunger und Seide, 1995), the experimental Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm: Vom Weggehen und Ausscheren (1993), which played with the juxtaposition of text and illustration, and the collage poem, Este sau nu este Ion (2005). Atemschaukel (2009) was based on the experiences of Müller's friend, the late Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior, who died in 2006. Narrated in the first person, it tells about the experiences of a young homosexual man, who is deported to a labour camp in Ukraine.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Müller has won numerous other literary awards, including The Kleist Prize (1994), the European Union's Aristeion Prize for Literature (1995), the International IMPAC Dublin Litetary Award (1998), the Franz Kafka Prize (1999) and the literature prize of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (2004). In Germany, where Müller has settled in Berlin, she has given lectures in several universities. In 1995 she was appointed member of the German Academy for Language and Poetry, in Darmstadt, and in 2005 she held the Heiner-Müller Guest Professorship at the Free University.

For further reading: 'In allem ist der Riss': Trauma, Fragmentation, and the Body in Herta Müller's Prose and Collages, in The Modern Language Review by Lyn Marven (April 4, 2006); Body and Narrative in German Literature by Lyn Marven (2005); Herta Müller, ed. by Thomas Daum (2003); Herta Müller, ed. by Brigid Haines (1998); Eine Poesie der Sinne: Herta Müllers Diskurs des Alleinseins und seine Wurzeln by Herta Haupt-Cucuiu (1996); Body and Narrative in Contemporary Literature in German by Lyn Marven (2006) 

Selected bibliography:

  • Niederungen, 1982 (uncut version, 2010)
    - Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, 1999)
    - Matala maa (suom. Raija Jänicke, 1989)
  • Drückender Tango: Erzählungen, 1984
  • Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt, 1986
    - The Passport (translated by Martin Chalmers, 1989)
    - Ihminen on iso fasaani (suomentanut Raija Jänicke, 1990)
  • Barfüßiger Februar: Prosa, 1987
  • Reisende auf einem Bein, 1989
    - Traveling on One Leg (translated by Valentina Glajar and André Lefevere, 1998)
  • Der Teufel sitzt im Spiegel: wie Wahrnehmung sich erfindet, 1991
  • Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger: Roman, 1992
  • Eine warme Kartoffel ist ein warmes Bett, 1992
  • Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm: Vom Weggehen und Ausscheren, 1993
  • Das Herztier: Roman, 1994
    - The Land of Green Plums: A Novel (translated by Michael Hofmann, 1996)
    - Sydäneläin (suomentanut Raija Jänicke, 1996)
  • Hunger und Seide, 1995
  • In der Falle, 1996
  • Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, 1997
    - The Appointment (translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm, 2001)
    - Tänään en haluaisi tavata itseäni (suom. 2010)
  • Der fremde Blick oder Das Leben ist ein Furz in der Laterne, 1999
  • Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame, 2000
  • Heimat ist das, was gesprochen wird, 2001
  • Der König verneigt sich und tötet, 2003
  • Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen, 2005
  • Este sau nu este Ion, 2005
  • Atemschaukel: Roman, 2009
    - The Hunger Angel: A Novel (translated by Philip Boehm, 2012)
    - Hengityskeinu (suom. 2010)
  • Ich glaube nicht an die Sprache: Herta Müller im Gespräch mit Renata Schmidtkunz, 2009
  • Lebensangst und Worthunger: im Gespräch mit Michael Lentz: Leipziger Poetikvorlesung 2009, 2010
  • Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel, 2011
  • Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen, 2012

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