Behind The Iron Curtain: Herta Mueller Wins Nobel Prize For Literature

Herta Mueller, a 56-year-old member of Romania's ethnic German minority, has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature for her stark depictions of life under Communism.

Mueller's first book, a short story collection called Niederungen (Nadirs), was published in Romania in 1982. It depicted the difficulties of life in an ethnically German Romanian village, and was quickly censored by the Communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu. The government eventually barred her from publishing in Romania at all, and Mueller left for Germany in 1987 with her husband (coincidentally named Richard Wagner). Since then she has written a number of essays, short stories, novels, including The Land of Green Plums and The Appointment.

Much of Mueller's work deals with the difficulties inherent in her German-Romanian heritage. According to Larry Wolff, who reviewed The Land of Green Plums in 1996, most of Romania's ethnic Germans returned to Germany either during or after the rule of Ceausescu. Wolff writes that "this marks the end of many communities that had survived from the 18th-century reign of the Empress Maria Theresa," and that Mueller "conveys a certain sadness over the historical implications of emigration, the impending doom of her own native culture and society" (he also notes that Mueller is one of the few female authors to write about life in Communist Eastern Europe). Yet Mueller, whose father was a member of the Waffen SS (like, interestingly, former Nobel winner Gunter Grass), also betrays in her writing a certain ambivalence about her Germanness. The narrator of The Land of Green Plums mentions how embarrassed she feels in the presence of Romanian-Jewish Holocaust survivors:

It was Herr Feyerabend. He was shuffling his feet and pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket. I withdrew my head, as if the white handkerchief could feel that someone like myself was staring at a Jew.

But any shame Mueller felt at Germany's fascist past did not prevent her from criticizing Romania's Communist regime — or the vestiges of this regime that outlasted the fall of Ceausescu. In a 2007 essay on Romania's entry into the EU, Mueller accused the country of "collective amnesia" and of ignoring the continued influence of the officially disbanded Securitate, Ceausescu's secret service. She wrote,

A former dissident gets a job in the public service and is summoned for a swearing in. And when he opens the door, his former Securitate interrogator is standing there to receive his oath on the democratic constitution. Or a former political prisoner applies for a loan at the savings bank in a town. The bank director who tells him that the loan has not been granted was once his prison director.

In Brussels, they'll say the former prisoner should go to another bank. If there's a bank in the town, the EU criteria are fulfilled. The question is: who's the director?

Mueller's criticism of Ceausescu and his supporters notwithstanding, Pete Ayrton, one of her publishers, says, "she writes extraordinary accounts of being an ethnic minority in a totalitarian regime. But this is not overtly political writing; it's very poetic and elliptical. She's an extraordinary writer." A passage from The Land of Green Plums reveals this poetic quality:

Under the pillows in the beds were six pots of mascara. Six girls spat into the pots and stirred the soot with toothpicks until the black paste grew sticky. Then they opened their eyes wide. The toothpicks scraped against their eyelids, their lashes grew black and thick. But an hour later gray gaps began to crack open in the eyelashes. The saliva dried up and the soot crumbled onto their cheeks.

Wolff points out that "since an important purpose of the novel is to represent cultural survival through the German language, any translation necessarily obscures some of the work's significance." At the same time, Mueller's words, even in English, bear out the Swedish Academy's claim that her work, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." Perhaps now this "wonderful, neglected writer," as Ayrton calls her, will receive more international attention.

Herta Mueller Wins Nobel Prize In Literature [AP, via NYT]
Herta Müller Takes Nobel Prize For Literature [Guardian]
Strangers In A Strange Land [NYT]
Romania's Collective Amnesia [Sightandsign.com]
Novelist Herta Müller Wins Nobel Prize In Literature [Mediabistro]