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An alien gaze

Lyn Marven considers Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller's compelling fictional exploration of state oppression

February 14, 2010
9 min read

From Russian gulags and Romanian collaboration with the Nazis through to Ceausescu’s totalitarian state, Nobel prize-winning novelist Herta Müller’s work casts experiences of oppressive authoritarian regimes in strikingly poetic language.

In her acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel literature prize, Romanian-German author Herta Müller talks about the vicious circle of language. Words are caught in the trap of trying to express something even though the materiality of language will always be inadequate to expression, just as feelings can never be adequately conveyed by gestures. The Nobel committee praised Müller’s writing for her attempts to give expression to ‘life under a dictatorship in her Romanian homeland’, evoking ‘the landscape of the dispossessed’.

What makes Müller’s work so fascinating is not only that it depicts oppressive regimes, from Russian gulags and Romanian collaboration with the Nazis, through a stifling childhood in the rural Banat to Ceausescu’s totalitarian state, but that it does so in strikingly poetic language. This combination makes Müller’s books challenging to translate – but also makes it imperative to bring them to a wider international public, as the Nobel prize recognises.

Fiction and fact

The protagonists and narrators in Müller’s short stories and novels are close to her own experience. Indeed, she appears to deal with her memories first through fiction, only later revealing her own biographical details in interviews and essays.

Her two short-story collections were published in Bucharest under heavy censorship. Niederungen (translated into English as Nadirs) and the second, little-known, Drückender Tango (‘Oppressive Tango’, as yet untranslated) portray a harsh childhood in a rural German community in the Banat, offering child’s-eye views of rural Romania and satirical depictions of the German minority community along with more political parables. Müller’s first novel, Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (translated into English as The Passport) is set in the same community, showing the decay of rural life as families emigrate. Müller wrote this while she, like the main character, was waiting for permission to leave for Germany.

Like Michael Haneke’s 2009 film Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon, see page 58), these three books depict the effects of constrictive norms, repressive sexuality and violence visited upon children in a rural community. The stories are conveyed in often-surreal prose, in which raspberry plants creep from garden to garden and apple trees eat their own apples.

The German editions of the early texts recast the collections to focus on the rural tales. This shaped Müller as the documentarist of a minority community that had and still has a voice within Germany – and that spoke out strongly (and perhaps stirred up by the Securitate secret police, Müller claims) against her far-from-idyllic view. The more political texts are not republished in the German editions.

Müller’s emigration to West Germany, under pressure from the Securitate, is evoked in Reisende auf Einem Bein (translated into English as Traveling on One Leg), one of only two novels she set outside Romania. Published in late 1989, it tells the story of Irene, a psychologically fragile migrant from an unnamed eastern European country arriving in then still-divided Berlin. The novel is remarkably prescient about the end of the Eastern bloc – and it cannot have escaped the notice of the Nobel prize committee that 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of that momentous set of events.

It was only after this novel that Müller’s political side came to the fore. Her next three novels, written and published after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, begin to detail the physical threat and psychological repression within Ceausescu’s state. In Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (‘The fox was already the hunter’, as yet untranslated but bought by Portobello), the main character Adina finds surreal signs that the Securitate have tampered with her possessions, such as a fox-fur rug whose limbs are severed one by one. Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet appeared in English as The Appointment, a title that belies the intimidation of the appointment in question – an interrogation by the Securitate.

Probably Müller’s best known work is the densely poetic Herztier (The Land of Green Plums in Michael Hofmann’s English translation). It focuses on a group of friends, based on the poets and writers Richard Wagner, Rolf Bossert and Roland Kirsch, who are targeted by the Securitate, forced to emigrate or die in suspicious circumstances. As with Müller, the narrator’s difficult father had been involved in the SS during the second world war; and like Müller, the narrator is betrayed by her best friend, who secretly spies on her. It was only the recent viewing of her Securitate file that put to rest the lingering suspicion that this friendship might even have been set up by the Securitate.

Her new novel Atemschaukel (to be published in English in 2011 as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me) takes a departure from her own life, and confronts the traumas of an earlier generation. Drawing on conversations with the poet Oskar Pastior and a joint trip to Ukraine, the novel depicts the fate of the German population in Romania after the end of World War Two, following a young man deported to the Russian gulag. Müller’s novel wrings sparse poetry from the deprivations of the gulag, and the last words, ‘a kind of distance in me’, seem to resonate with the increasing artistic distance that the author has to her own autobiography.

Split in two

Müller’s Nobel prize win has seen renewed criticism within Romania. Attempts to discredit her have come not least from the former head of the Securitate, who spied on her and says that she is delusional. Müller, meanwhile, has claimed that the Securitate is still functioning in all but name, and this tactic is familiar to her:

‘In my file I am two different people. One is called ‘Cristina’, is an enemy of the state and is targeted. In order to compromise this Cristina, the falsification factory of section D (disinformation) fabricates a decoy out of all the parts which damage me most – loyal communist, ruthless secret agent, member of the party, which I, unlike many functionaries in the country, never was.

‘Wherever I went I had to live with this decoy. She wasn’t just sent after me, she also went on ahead. Although I have only ever spoken against the dictatorship in my writing, right from the start, the decoy goes her own way to this very day. She has become independent. Although the dictatorship has been over for 20 years, she still walks the earth. For how much longer?’

Müller herself uses the motif of the doppelgänger as a cipher for the effects of trauma. Her literature mirrors the strategy employed by the Securitate with its decoy. Splitting oneself in two is a form of psychological defence, a way of gaining distance from what is happening.

Romanian and poetic language

Müller’s work has been praised for her ‘alien gaze’: the precise observation that tips into defamiliarisation and is mirrored in surreal, poetic language. It does not result simply from her minority or outsider’s view but is rather the product of fear, through surveillance and superstition. This is the particular gaze of someone who returns to their flat and suspects that objects have been moved or tampered with, or who puts the phone in the fridge to avoid being overheard.

But equally it conveys the fearful ignorance of a child who believes that certain wild birds bring death or who is traumatised by the slaughter of a pig. Or the distorted perspective of an inmate of a gulag, with minimal but precious possessions, starving and on the lookout for edible plants. Her language represents the precision of the powerless, at the mercy of their environment but determined to wrest some control over what happens to them by observing details, however fragmentary or incomprehensible.

Müller’s life experience brings to her writing much more than mere raw material: it influences the very language in which her stories are told. Some of the poetic resonance of Müller’s work comes from the Romanian, which echoes through her German. For her, Romanian is a language of threat and oppression, as seen in her Securitate files, which she reproduced recently alongside an essay under the title of her code name, Cristina. But at the same time it is a second mother tongue and source of poetic imagery. Just as Kafka drew on Prague German and Yiddish, for Müller poetry arises from the productive interaction of the different languages. The pheasant, from the German title of The Passport, is a proud strutting bird in German but a loser in Romanian. The local dialect word for train, derived from Romanian, is the same as the standard German for tear (one thinks here of the trains transporting the young man to the Russian gulag in her latest novel).

Müller published her first work in Romanian in 2005, Este sau nu este Ion (‘Is it or is it not Ion’) a collection of collages. The collages make visible the Romanian that was always present in her writing and sees her taking artistic control in the language in which she was interrogated. In her Nobel speech prize she says that she turns to collages to find the words to express herself, though these words too are distanced as she only picks them out and pastes them together.

It is perhaps significant, therefore, that the first words she has written (as opposed to pasted) in Romanian come in her Nobel prize speech. Bringing her full circle to the beginnings of her literary career, they state in full view of the world her defiant refusal to collaborate with Securitate: ‘N-am caracterul’ – I don’t have the character for this.

Lyn Marven is a lecturer in German at the University of Liverpool. She researches and translates contemporary German literature and is the author of Body and Narrative in Contemporary German Literatures: Herta Müller, Libuse Moníková and Kerstin Hensel and the translator of Berlin Tales.

Translations from the German in this article are the author’s own.

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