By Kelly Jean Cogswell
It should have gone to Philip Roth. Philip Roth, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates. That was the consensus on the American side of the pond after Herta Müller was named the latest winner of the Nobel prize in literature.
In a Washington Post article, Mary Jordan asked, "Herta who?" and quoted that luminary Harold Bloom announcing he had, "Nothing to talk about because I have never heard of this writer." Jordan likewise featured a German bookstore owner characterizing Müller as popular only "with a minority of intellectuals." Finally, an unnamed but "prominent editor and writer in New York" confirmed Müllar's insignificance declaring that the 18-member Nobel jury was "in some other universe." Which is absolutely true.
In this other universe that does not have America as its heart, we're celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. From Europe, the world seems bigger than from New York, and the stakes higher. Many countries of the former Soviet bloc are struggling with their totalitarian pasts, while established democracies are struggling to balance their mandate for civil liberties with the so-called exigencies of fighting terrorism.
And in this other universe where literature is still a battleground of ideas and not some popularity contest, Herta Müller was the perfect choice. Through more than twenty books, and a string of Europe's top prizes, she's obsessively and brilliantly considered the legacy of Communism in Romania, especially the spying, betrayal, hatred, and loss.
Born into a German-speaking minority in the Romanian countryside in 1953, her peasant mother suffered several years in a Ukrainian gulag, sent there like many other ethnic Germans by the Soviets that briefly occupied Romania after World War II.
During the war, her father was in the SS. "My father hated working in the fields and when he returned from the SS in 1945, he became a lorry driver and alcoholic. The combination is possible in the countryside. My mother was and remained a peasant in the corn and sunflower fields. Corn for me is the socialist plant par excellence: it displays its colours, grows in colonies, blocks the view and cuts your hands with its leaves while you're working."
She herded cows as a child and worked on the farm. After studying literature in college, she found work as a translator in a factory. To keep her job, she had to agree to spy for Ceausescu's secret police. When she refused twice, the functionary told her, "You'll be sorry, we'll drown you in the river." Instead, he denounced her to the other workers as a spy and made her a pariah. Shortly afterwards she lost her job.
Like other uncooperative writers, her work was censored, and she was under constant surveillance. She was repeatedly interrogated and humiliated. Her house was bugged. They threatened her. Even in 1987 when she finally was able to move with her husband to Berlin, there were traces of the secret police.
In her essay, "Securitate in all but name," which appeared this July in the German weekly Die Zeit, she wrote that despite the execution of Ceausescu, the fall of the Berlin wall, and an innocuous new name, the Romanian Information Service, the secret police continues largely intact. "According to their own figures, 40% of the staff was taken on from the Securitate. The real percentage is probably much higher." The rest are retired, or "the new architects of the market economy."
In her novels, those implications are translated into human terms. After thirty years under a dictatorship she's an expert on the damage we do to ourselves with each complicit act, not just the active betrayals, but the times we turn our eyes away. When we accept. Or forget. And go silent.
We are lucky when writers like Müller refuse. There's a certain amount of courage you have to have. A certain amount of mulishness. A sense of self-preservation that extends beyond the body. We get a glimpse of that in her 1991 "Der Teufel Sitzt im Spiegel" (The devil sits in the mirror) quoted in Verena Auffermann's biographical essay about the writer:
"Writing is always the last thing, the only thing that I can (still) do, have to do, when there's nothing else I can do. When I write, it is always at the point where I can no longer deal with myself (and that also means the things that surround me). When I can no longer endure my senses. When I can no long endure thinking. When everything has become so complicated that I no longer know where the external things begin or end. Whether they are inside me or the other way round."
Word by word, our best writers pull back the curtains and show us the truth of the world. Müller does that in her novels and her life. One of her first acts as a laureate was to support embattled Chinese writers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.