Writer Spotlight: Herta Müller

Herta Müller was born in 1953 in Romania.  More specifically, she was born in a German speaking village to Banat Swabian parents placing her within the German minority of Romania which would influence a great deal of her experience of life.

herta muller photo by ulla montan
photo by Ulla Montan

Müller is a novelist, poet, and essayist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages since the 90s.  To date, she has received more than 20 awards and in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Upon naming Müller the 2009 laureate she was described by the Swedish Academy as someone “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The 2009 Nobel Prize coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism and Müller’s publishing house’s head, Michael Krüger, said: “By giving the award to Herta Müller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, the committee has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten”.

Müller lived during the communist regime in Romania which not only impacted her and her family’s lives but her work.

“Müller is noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime which she has experienced herself. Many of her works are told from the viewpoint of the German minority in Romania and are also a depiction of the modern history of the Germans in the Banat, and Transylvania. Her much acclaimed 2009 novel The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel) portrays the deportation of Romania’s German minority to Stalinist Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania for use as German forced labor.” (Wikipedia)

With regard to personal influences, Müller has described herself as being heavily influenced by her German and Romanian Language and Literature studies which she completed at the West University of Timișoara.  Müller’s relationship with language and words goes deeper than being a writer.  She is multilingual and worked as a translator in the 70s and she has talked about the difference in cultural psychology that can be revealed through language and words.  Reading Müller’s interview for the Paris review, The Art of Fiction No. 225, you begin to get a sense of what it might have been like to live under such an intense dictatorship and suffer a lack of freedom of speech as a lover of language and words.

One particular paragraph struck me because it shows so simply how living under these conditions can change the way you see the world around you.

I still can’t stand the sight of them. Or gladioli. Whenever there was a funeral or a burial of some high-ranking socialist functionary, they always had the same flowers, because those were the flowers that lasted the longest. But I’ve always liked the flowers that wilt quickly, like pansies or lily of the valley or dahlias or phlox, and that don’t let themselves be put to ill use. It’s the same with people—the people who get put to ill use are the ones whose character lends itself to that. People who don’t have those traits to begin with can’t be misused that way. Just like if the carnations and gladioli wilted more quickly, then they wouldn’t wind up inside the wreaths for the party bosses who had just died. But the flowers in the little gardens, the ones that bloom for just a short time—those were the plants of the powerless.
You know you start to get a little kooky when you live so long in a dictatorship.

Everything begins to have connotations.

And you start dividing everything up into what’s on my side and what’s on the side of the state. Even the beach. I used to think to myself, How can the sun be such a traitor? Because Ceauşescu had these villas on the Black Sea, whole stretches of the coastline would be cordoned off when he was there. Or even when he wasn’t, nobody could go there, and I always thought, Why is the sun doing that for him, why is it offering him these beautiful sunsets, doesn’t it see who it’s dealing with, couldn’t it simply refuse and say, I’m not going to do this for him anymore?
But I think this is a common theme in books about oppression. In Jorge Semprún, for example. People in the worst situations wonder how their surroundings can simply look on like that, so indifferent to all the human suffering. And if the oppression is taking place outside under open skies—like a concentration camp—then the whole landscape can seem to be an accomplice.”

Müller’s experience with the communist regime and Ceaușescu’s dictatorship are intimate.  Her grandfather was a wealthy farmer and merchant who had his land and property confiscated by the communist regime.  Her father was a member of the Waffen SS which faught during WWII and was later condemned as a criminal organisation in the Nuremberg trials.  Her mother at age 17 was deported to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union (today Ukraine) from 1945-1950.  And Müller herself was dismissed from her job as a translator in 1979 for refusing to be an informant for the Securitate or the secret police which then continued to harass her.  The Nobel biographical notes write that “because Müller had publicly criticized the dictatorship in Romania, she was prohibited from publishing in her own country”.  All of which must have influenced her work in some way.  The Land of Green Plums (1993) is said to have been written after the death of two friends in which she suspected the involvement of the secret police and one of the characters is based on a good friend of hers from the Aktionsgruppe Banat (read the article).  Strictly true or not, what remains obvious is that Müller’s work is a retelling of some of the horrors endured under Ceaușescu’s regime.

I highly recommend reading Müller’s Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 225.  I once began reading The Hunger Angel but decided that I was not in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it and put it aside for a later date.  I imagine Müller to be no easy read for it’s content but given the underlying influences of her work it remains important to go there lest we forget the realities that some have lived in our lifetimes.


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