Herta Müller, the Nobel Laureate in Literature of 2009, is not only writing gripping and poetic prose, but her life itself sounds like a post-war novel. Maybe that is why she is not solely writing for a living, but truly lived what she writes.
Her story begins with her name. Her first name, Herta, was given to her by her mother in 1953, in commemoration to a friend who starved to death in a Russian labour camp, where the mother had to survive for five years.
The surname, Müller, is a typical German name. Atypical is that this name belonged to a family who lived like few other aboriginal Banat-Germans as a minority in Rumania. Müller’s father was an SS-soldier.
After finishing her studies in German and Romanian studies, she started to work as a translator for a machine factory, where she was dismissed, since she refused to spy for the Securitate, the Romanian secret service.
Living in the time of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship “disgusted her physically”. It is an oppressive atmosphere with spies, disappearing people, starvation and daily chicanery. Müller herself was interrogated repeatedly, received death treats, and “saw many people break”, as she said in the Nobel Prize documentary. Some of her friends were even killed.
In this all-encompassing climate of fear she started to write “in order not to become insane.” This fear is protruding throughout her work. Such emotions become so dominating that the mood in her novels are “more important than the plot, and an air of enigma prevails throughout,” as the Guardian writes.
Her writings revolve around the forgotten individuals and their excruciating life in a dictatorship. She “depicts this landscape of the dispossessed”, according to the Nobel Prize committee, “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose.”
For some critics, such as the Marcel Reich-Ranicki, there is too much concentration on poetry. In the TV show, Das litteratische Quartett, he said: “She doesn’t leave us alone with her poetical metaphors.”
But these metaphors are her tool to convey the atmosphere and emotions, which seem to meet their absurd nature with the abstraction of the poetic. For someone living in a totalitarian state it is almost impossible to perceive the horror coherently, and this is consequently reflected in the Müller’s hermetic language.
In 1985, Müller was eventually allowed to leave the country and escaped to Berlin, where she continues to convert her past into words. Even though she is relatively free now, one can still see and hear the remnants of her former life, which lie in her with dark encircled eyes and her slightly fragile voice.
According to Müller, it is the impossibility to forget that keeps her writing. Still, the individual struggle becomes eventually the common. And so she wrote in her Nobel Prize speech: “I wish I could utter a sentence for all those whom dictatorships deprive of dignity every day, up to and including the present.”