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Nobel winner Herta Müller on "the landscape of the dispossessed"

German novelist Herta Müller, a political exile from the regime of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, is the winner of the 2009 The Nobel Prize in Literature, it was announced in Stockholm by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy this past Thursday.  She is only the twelfth woman to be selected in the 108 year history of the award.
Müller, who was born in the German speaking community of Nitzkydorf in the district of Banat, Romania in 1953, is the author of over 20 books, ranging from novels and story collections to volumes of essays and poetry.  In their award announcement, the 18 member Nobel Prize Committee cited Müller's work for "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" in her depiction of "the landscape of the dispossessed."
While studying German and Romanian literature at the University at Timisoara in the 1970's, Müller  became involved the "Aktionsgruppe Banat," a group of Romanian-German writers seeking freedom of expression under the Ceaucescu dictatorship.  Following her graduation, she was approached by agents of the Romanian Secret Service to infiltrate the dissident group.  When she refused to cooperate, she lost her job as a translator at a Romanian engineering company, and found herself under surveillance by Ceausescu's thuggish "Securitate."
In an effort to capture the oppressive nature of life in a totalitarian state where individuals were rewarded for informing on their neighbors, Müller began writing a series of stories that captured the disintegration of Romanian culture and civil society--including the neo-fascist leanings of her own German speaking region--in a poetic and darkly humorous vein.  She collected these stories in a volume called Niederungen (which translates as "lowlands" or "depressions" in English) that was initially barred from publication by government censors.  In 1982, she was given permission to publish it in a greatly altered form. Two years later, she followed with another story collection called Drückender Tango ("drückender"  translates as "oppressive" in English).
The unexpurgated manuscript of Niederungen was smuggled out of Romania and found its way to Rotbuch Verlag, a prominent publishing collective in what was then West Berlin.  The book was published in its uncensored form in West Germany, and later throughout Europe--its title in English was Nadirs, and in the U.S. it was published by the University of Nebraska Press--to wide acclaim and no small amount of controversy.  As a special guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1985, Müller publicly denounced the Romanian dictatorship, and returned home to find her books banned and her publishing agreements voided by the Ceausescu regime.
Nor longer permitted to publish or teach, she paradoxically found herself a cause celebre in European literary circles, but virtually under house arrest in Romania.   In 1987, she and her husband, the German writer Richard Wagner, sought and were granted permission to emigrate to the West.  They settled in Berlin, where they have lived ever since. 
Much of Müller's writing since leaving Romania has focused on what might broadly be called "themes of exile," but she's not an explicitly "political" writer in the sense that, say, Günter Grass is.  Rather, the sense of dislocation--of not belonging to the culture she left, and not fully belonging to the culture of the newly reunified Germany she arrived in--is conveyed in the precision of her prose, which moves from deeply poetic images to the German language's unique capacity for cold, brute facts and guttural sounds.
Relatively little of her work has been translated into English, and of that which has, even less is currently in print.  Her best known works outside of Germany include Herztier, translated into English as The Land of Green Plums by Michael Hofman and published by Henry Holt & Company in 1996, and Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet,  translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm and published in English as The Appointment by Metropolitan Books/Picador in 2001.
In 1998, Müller received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Herztier / The Land of Green Plums.
In Müller's most recent book Atemschaukel (2009), translated by Donal McLaughlin and published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me by Granta/Metropolitan Books earlier this year, a 17-year-old Romanian boy is deported to a Ukrainian forced labor camp for an illicit rendezvous in a public park.  There the young man (loosely based on late Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior)  endures the body and soul crushing regimen of the gulag to emerge as an artist.  A reviewer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it "phenomenal, moving and humbling novel, perhaps the most memorable read of the season."   To read the opening passage of the novel, which has been short-listed for the 2009 Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize), visit Herta Müller's "Everything I Own I Carry With Me" - an excerpt.
On Sunday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published the English language translation of the transcript of the first interview with Müller since she won the Nobel Prize.  You can read it here .
--R.D. Pohl


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