Lifewriting: Herta Müller’s journey

Lyn Marven
15 October 2009

"Books about difficult times are often read as testimony. My books are also necessarily about difficult times, about amputated lives in a dictatorship, about the everyday life of a German minority - cowering away from the outside world but inwardly autocratic - and their subsequent disappearance through emigration to Germany. For many people my books are therefore testimony. But I don't feel I'm bearing witness when I write. I learned writing through silence and keeping silent. That's where it began." (Herta Müller, Kann Literatur Zeugnis ablegen? [2002])

Lyn Marven is lecturer in German studies in the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies at the University of Liverpool. Her  translations of German writers include Berlin Tales (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her research work focuses on contemporary literature (especially younger authors of non-German origins and from the former GDR), women's writing, gendered identities and visual texts. Her main current project analyses identity and the city in the multicultural Berlin Republic.

Lyn Marven's writings include Body and Narrative in Contemporary Literatures in German: Herta Müller, Libuše Moníková, Kerstin Hensel (Oxford University Press, 2005); and "Writing by Women", in Stuart Taberner ed, Contemporary German Fiction: Writing in the Berlin Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

The announcement on 8 October 2009 that this year's Nobel prize in literature is being awarded to Herta Müller has been followed by the predictable effort of multiple media outlets to package the details of her life into a convenient, digestible story. Much of the coverage reflected the fact that the author is little-known in the English-speaking world (the [London] Times even led with the headline, "Herta Müller. Who she?"; but it also found in her outward trajectory a readily available narrative that to a degree filled the vacuum. The standard portrait of the German-Romanian quasi-dissident writer whose early political engagement under the Nicolae Ceauşescu regime in Romania led to her exile is given added flavour by the twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism across east-central Europe.

This is fine as far as it goes. But it does not go very far. For if it is natural to speculate whether Herta Müller's prize is influenced by her biography, the lack of knowledge of her oeuvre also means that her life-story has to stand in for any attempt to register her work's key themes and assess its value. There is a particular reason to attend to this: namely, that the link between life and writing in Herta Müller's texts is complex and by no means straightforwardly autobiographical.

Between life and language

How then should this link be understood? It is routine for "minority writing" to be viewed as documentary rather than literary, read for what it reveals about the other lives and communities it depicts. The Nobel committee itself acknowledged this referential function - notwithstanding that the prize honours an author for their work, not their person - in describing Müller's work as a "chronicle" of "life under a dictatorship in her Romanian homeland" which "depicts the landscape of the dispossessed".

It is true that Müller's short stories and novels echo the stages of her life, albeit not in chronological order: a harsh childhood in a rural German community in the Banat (seen in the German publication of Niederungen, 1984); a father who had been involved in the Nazi SS (Herztier, 1994); the physical threat and psychological repression within Ceauşescu's state (Herztier, Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, 1997 - amongst others); emigration to West Germany under pressure from the Securitate (Reisende auf einem Bein, 1989).

Moreover, Müller's protagonists and narrators are close to her own experience (details of which are documented in many of her non-fiction essays). This is evident even in her earliest work, two collections of stories published in Bucharest under heavy censorship; here, alter ego figures recur amongst surreal prose, child's-eye views of rural Romania, satirical depictions of the German minority community and political parables. Her best-known work is the densely poetic Herztier won a major literary award in 1988. This focuses on a group of friends, based on real-life poets and writers (Richard Wagner, Rolf Bossert and Roland Kirsch), portrayed by a narrator whose best friend Tereza secretly spies on her on behalf of the Securitate and eventually betrays her (as happened to Müller herself).

Indeed, the vulnerable character Inge in the Bucharest edition of Niederungen appears to represent the trauma Müller experienced at the hands of the Securitate even as she was writing. On returning from an interrogation:

"Inge saw Inge on the TV screen smoothing the piece of paper. On the paper was written: Headstand.

Inge saw Inge standing on her head on the TV screen."  

Just as Inge expresses Müller's experiences, the reflected Inge acts out the real Inge's feeling that the world has been turned upside down. But the scene might also be read as a warning against equating the real person and her image: the independent reflection is both Inge and not Inge.

Also in openDemocracy on recipients of the Nobel literature award:

Harold Pinter, "Democracy" (13 October 2005)

David Hayes, "Harold Pinter and Margaret Thatcher" (13 October 2005)

Tom McBride, "Big ideas and wandering fools: Saul Bellow" (7 April 2005)

Ron Singer, "Nigerian futures: interview with Wole Soyinka" (25 August 2006)

Roger Allen, "Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world" (31 August 2006)

Trevor Le Gassick, "Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute" (1 September 2006)

Anthony Barnett, "Orhan Pamuk's prize: for Turkey not against it" (13 October 2006)

Hrant Dink, "Orhan Pamuk's epic journey" (16 October 2006)

Tarek Osman, "Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

Susan Watkins, "Doris Lessing: writing against and for" (12 October 2007)

Müge Galin, "Doris Lessing: the Sufi connection" (12 October 2007)

Roger Scruton, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within" (7 August 2008)

Such precise observation, which tips into defamiliarisation and which is mirrored in surreal, poetic language, is a defining feature of Müller's work. But this much-admired "alien gaze" is the product of surveillance and fear rather than of her minority or outsider's view (the autobiographical facts of her identity). This is the acute gaze of a person who returns to their flat and suspects that objects have moved or been tampered with while she was out; or who finds surreal signs that the Securitate had been there (such as a fox-fur rug whose limbs are severed one by one).

Thus, what Müller's life brings to her writing is much more than mere raw material: it influences the very language in which her stories are told. Müller herself emphasises that her own experience is only the background for her work: it becomes fiction through literary reworking. And it is precisely these literary effects, often very poetic in nature, which are both so hard to translate and so challenging in translation.

A kind of distance

Even readers with no knowledge of German will have noticed the strange discrepancy in the length of the titles of Müller's books in German and English. Her best-known work Herztier [Heart-Beast] became (in Michael Hofmann's English translation) The Land of Green Plums; her new (as yet untranslated) novel Atemschaukel [Breath-swing] already has an equally extended English title, Everything I Possess I Carry With Me. Conversely, her first work to be translated into English, Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt [Humans are great big pheasants in the world] carried the title The Passport; and Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet [Today I would rather not have encountered myself] is published simply as The Appointment.

What is going on here? The translated titles lose Müller's invented compound-nouns, and refuse the oddness of the long phrases. Their effect in English is apparently too, well, alien. But Müller's linguistically inventive work already challenges German readers. Her poetic language also draws on Romanian: Herztier is a German "translation" of a Romanian wordplay with inima (heart) and animal (beast); while the title of Der Mensch ist...plays off the Romanian sense of the pheasant as a loser, a bird which does not get off the ground, far from the preening, strutting creature in German (and indeed English). In Müller's essays, she is ambivalent towards Romanian: a source of poetic imagery, but also the language of threat and fear.

Herta Müller published her first work in the Romanian language only in 2005: Este sau nu este Ion (Is He or Isn't He Ion), a collection of collages. It makes visible the Romanian that was always present in her writing, and sees her taking artistic control in the language used to interrogate her. This interesting twist in her writing is another sign that she uses literature to work through traumas.

Atemschaukel, even further removed from her own life, confronts the agonies of an earlier generation. The novel draws on conversations with the poet Oskar Pastior and a joint trip to Ukraine, depicting the fate of the German population in Romania after 1945 through the experience of a deportee (as Pastior had been) to the Soviet gulag. In an afterword, the author explains that Müller's own mother suffered the same fate, but the voice she chooses to imagine is that of a young man. 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. Herta Müller's own compelling literary journey is unfinished.

(All translations from the German are by the author)

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