The World from Berlin Herta Müller's Work Is 'Steeped in Europe's Terrible History'

Romanian-born German author Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday. German editorials praised the decision, although many point out that her work is above all rooted in the experience of totalitarianism in Romania.


Any hopes that the academy in Stockholm might buck a recent trend of picking European writers and award the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature to a writer from beyond the continent were dashed on Thursday. Instead Herta Müller was awarded the prize for a body of work that is deeply rooted in the place of her birth, a region of Romania once home to a large minority of German speakers.

The Swedish Academy opted to pay tribute to Müller, who now lives in Berlin, for "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" with which she depicts "the landscape of the disposed." The writer, who fled the Ceausecsu dictatorship in 1987, is known for works such as "The Land of Green Plums" and "The Appointment," although much of her work is not widely available in English.

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Photo Gallery: Herta Müller

Müller says the experience of life in totalitarian Romania compelled her to write. "My writing was always about how a dictatorship arises, how a situation is able to occur where a handful of powerful people dominate a country and the country disappears, and there is only the state left," she told reporters in Berlin on Thursday.

Müller was born in 1953 in the German-speaking town of Nitzykydorf in Banat, Romania. Her father had served in the Waffen SS during World War II and he mother spent five years in a work camp in present-day Ukraine. Müller studied German and Romanian literature and became associated with the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of authors who opposed Ceausescu and sought freedom of speech. She was dismissed from her job translating at a machine factory in 1979 after she refused to be an informant for the police. From then on she was harassed by the state and her work was censored. In 1987 she and her husband Richard Wagner finally managed to leave for West Berlin.

German newspapers on Friday are understandably proud of the academy's decision to award the prize to a German-speaking author. However, many point out that her work is essentially universal and is predicated upon the devastating history of 20th-century Europe.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Important literature doesn't just address conflicts, it is born of conflicts -- it comes from the great historical upheavals where individuals are crushed by ideologies or wars. Literature, good literature, can provide something like an durable, lasting experience of these horrors. It doesn't simply recount what people do to other people. Rather it holds in remembrance the shocks that went with these experiences and makes them comprehensible to people who didn't have to go through them."

"One cannot explain the writer Herta Müller without taking this into account. Her novels are steeped in Europe's terrible 20th-century history of violence, of lines of conflict that arose from displacement, oppression and state totalitarianism."

"Herta Müller may be the third German-speaking author in 10 years to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, following Günter Grass in 1999 and Elfriede Jelinek in 2004. However, at its core this is not a prize for German-language literature, but rather for a literature that uncompromisingly translates historical reality and memory into language."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"In 1929, 10 years after the founding of the Weimar Republic, Thomas Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had become the most prominent cultural representative of that first threatened German democracy. Then in 1999, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and as a century of totalitarianism was coming to a close, the award went to Günter Grass, who like no one else represented the old West Germany and its cultural mainstream. And now, 10 years later, exactly 20 years since the fall of the Wall, there is once again a 'German' Nobel Prize: Herta Müller."

"One should leave aside thoughts of numerology and nine as the Germans' fateful number. …Herta Müller lacks this sense of being representative or of embodying a state in anyway. She is not a national German poet, but rather someone who, as the Nobel academy said: 'depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.'"

"This dispossession comes from the experience of totalitarianism, from the omnipresence of fear, mistrust and violence. In 1987 the German Romanian Hetra Müller emigrated to then West Germany. The memories of the Ceausescu dictatorship and the difficulty of settling in the West became the biographical raw material for her literature. Her work deals with the historical experiences of a German minority, yet its approach is universal. That is exactly why it has now been recognized with the Nobel Prize."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"(Herta Müller) has increasingly become one of the greats in German literature. Each one of her books has found a readership because she couldn't let go of what she had left behind. With an intensity that only arises when language is focused on finding the right expression, she tells of the fates of families willing to leave their country, of living with treachery and among traitors, of the fear that leaves no room to breath and of the indifference of those who have found their niche."

"Right up until her latest novel 'Atemschaukel' she repeatedly describes what state repression inflicts on those subjected to it. … (The prize) is in recognition of both artistry and ethics, as two sides of the same coin, and of a destroyed diaspora culture and its most eloquent protector. That is also why the decision in Stockholm is a great day for German literature."

Siobhán Dowling

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