A master seamstress of words: Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller turns 70

Friday, 18 August 2023 (12:25 IST)
"Amid the madness of totalitarianism, a young woman refuses to forgo being happy."
These were the words used by the publisher of the Romanian translation of the novel "The appointment" by Romanian-born German author and Nobel Prize laureate Herta Muller to market the book.
Simple as it is, this summary is entirely appropriate for the author because while she still lived in Romania, Muller indeed refused to surrender to the madness of totalitarianism.
She simply would not give in: Neither when her life was made a misery by the harassment, bullying and spying of the country's dreaded Securitate secret police force, nor even when members of her own community, the ethnic German Banat Swabians, insulted her and accused her of being a traitor and a "nest fouler" for writing about domestic violence, hubris, hypocrisy and the Nazi past of part of the village world (which included her own father) in which she grew up.
Early life in Romania
Herta Muler was born on August 17, 1953, in the German-speaking village of Nitchidorf in the Banat region of western Romania.
Her family lost virtually all that her grandfather had worked for when the pro-Soviet regime that came to power after the Second World War confiscated his property because he was a major landowner and pro-German "Hitlerist."
Even as a young girl, Muller was caught up in a constant race to decipher words and decode silence. Then as now, historical blame is not spoken of in Romania.
Born into an 'interlinguistic universe'
For the future writer, it was a good exercise in cultivating language — or, to be more precise, languages. At home, the Mullers spoke the old dialect of the Banat Swabians. From a young age, Herta learned Standard German at school and the Romanian spoken by her neighbors, the authorities and the totalitarian regime.
This was the interlinguistic universe in which she would later write.
"Authors who belong to an ethnic minority will always be different from those who write in the language of the majority population, the official language of the country," says Corina Bernic, who has translated many of Müller's texts into Romanian.
"They have different linguistic and cultural tools that come from a different mother tongue. These are different values, a different kind of literary school, different influences," she told DW.
The major impact of her life in Romania
Herta Muller writes in German, her mother tongue. Nevertheless, without her life in Romania and all the traumas she suffered, without the betrayal of the friends who reported her to the Securitate and blackened her name, without the sacrifices she made, the lies and her fear of the system, her largely autobiographical works would probably never have been so incisively powerful.
Ernest Wichner, the former head of Literaturhaus (Literature House) Berlin knows Muller well and was born in Banat, like her. In an essay written for DW, he recalled Muller's ex-husband Richard Wagner once remarking that she wrote the books that the Romanians needed.
"Wagner was talking about the influences of the Romanian language and the political nature of her books, the way she wrote about the dictatorship and how the majority of the population and, in particular, the institutions played a part in propping up the dictatorship," said Wichner.
On the radar of the secret police
Muller's persecution as a young author began as soon as her first works were published. Even in censored form, the characters in her books were a thorn in the side of the authorities and had to be disappeared.
The Securitate — already angered by the fact that it had failed to persuade Muller to become a collaborator — was furious that an ethnic German girl from a village in Banat would have the audacity to write about things it felt should not be written about.
This fury grew when "Nadirs," a collection of short stories that had been published in censored form in German in Romania in 1982, was published — entirely uncensored — by a West Berlin publisher two years later. The authorities wanted to get rid of Müller as quickly as possible.
Exile in West Germany
Her final months in Romania were a living hell. While waiting to leave, she was subjected to an endless stream of harassment and humiliation, which included more than 50 interrogations by the Securitate.
"I can well recall," wrote Romanian writer and diplomat Emil Hurezeanu in an essay for DW, "it was winter 1987 when she, her mother and Richard Wagner arrived at the train station in Berlin. It was bitterly cold. […] Humiliated at home and facing the threat of the vindictiveness of Romania's totalitarian regime, there they stood, facing an as yet unknown freedom."
According to Hurezeanu, Herta Muller has always remained true to herself, knowing how not to give up, how to hold on to one's principles and how to express one's opinions regardless of the consequences.
Kaleidoscopes of words
Herta Muller is said to have stated once that she never wanted to be a writer. As a child, she dreamed of working as a seamstress and only began writing out of fear. She later merged the two professions by becoming a seamstress of words, cutting words out of newspapers and magazines and combining them in a poetical kaleidoscope in the books of collages in which she wrote down her poems.
"What sets Herta Müller apart from other contemporary authors? The poetry of her language; the outstanding descriptive power of being able to transport the reader with just a few words on situations and conditions directly into the world between the pages, into her poetry — a poetry that seems to be fragile, but that is at the same time sharp and pointed, with the precision of a scalpel," said Corina Bernic.
A woman of courage and conviction
"I admire Herta Muller for the courage she showed in standing up to the enemies of democracy and human dignity in the Romania of the 1970s and 80s," wrote former German President Joachim Gauck for DW. "To this day, she continues to raise her voice for democracy and the inviolable dignity of all humans. Herta Müller gives her readers the gift of astute observations and a language that makes the incomprehensible comprehensible."
Shortly before her 70th birthday, a new collection of Muller's articles, essays and speeches from the last 20 years ("Eine Fliege kommt durch einen halben Wald") was published in Germany.
In this book, too, Müller remains true to herself.
"At the heart of everything she has written and continues to write is one absolutely simple conviction, namely that it is enough for a single person to suffer injustice for the whole of humanity to be affected by it. Everyone must be aware of this injustice," said Ernest Wichner.
"And because there is no state and no religion anywhere in the world that fights such injustices, which are multiplying and getting worse to the point of war and genocide, we need people like Herta Muller."

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