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Travelling on one leg

A portrait of this year's Nobel laureate, Herta Müller, by Verena Auffermann.

Herta Müller has eyes like spotlights that drive out the darkness night after night. She is small, featherweight even, and is the last person you would suspect to have spent a childhood herding cows. Of her background, she says: "I was born in 1953 in Nitzkysdorf, the year in which Stalin physically died – mentally, he continued living for years. The village," she continues, referring to her place of birth, "lies in the Romanian Banat, a two-hour drive from Belgrade and Budapest. A peasant population, white, pink, pale blue gables – and triangular houses in symmetrical streets. 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."

Herta Müller's oeuvre is circular. Since her first book "Nadirs", which was heavily censored in Romania and only published uncensored in Germany in 1984, the circle has developed four concentric rings. But they all revolve around dictatorship and Romania. To explain the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is to open the doors onto a horror cabinet of misanthropy. Ceausescu's techniques of attrition – like so many dictators – focussed on undermining, undermining in preparation for destruction, the undermining of life plans, friendships, of all forms of happiness. This is the theme that threads through all Herta Müller's books. Friends and lovers with melancholy-sounding names, Amelie, Liza, Irene, Adina, Lola, Tereza, Clara, Liviu, Edgar and Georg all end up betraying one another. Herta Müller's memory cannot let go of the horror of having to live without a sphere of intimacy, being watched, bugged, filmed or scanned.

Since those in power were bent on blanket dispossession, people's views included, she rebelled: in the lyceum in Temeswar, at university, in each of her books. Resistance to the dispossession of the senses became Herta Müller's aesthetic and political raison d'etre. Like Clara in "Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger" (even then, the fox was the hunter), Tereza in "The Land of Green Plums" could not resist a Securitate officer's bribes. Betrayal of friendship is the very peak of the praxis of humiliation. What else can we do, the author asks, if don't reveal what's inside. "The things are in our heads before we notice them. We grab hold of them, and even when they're so tiny that we can close our fingers around them, they are bigger than us." And, as one of her characters asks: what sort of country is it 'that tears at your fingers when you pick up a suitcase"?

Herta Müller constructs sentences like simple, ultra-functional houses. One sentence can contain the inventory of an entire lifetime. "Arrived as if absent" it says, for example in "Barfüßiger Februar" (barefooted February). Or "staying to go". Herta's sentences are ruthless, merciless and brutal. They are written in a crystal clear language that functions according to ascetic rules: measure, take the measurements, and compare the proportions with precision. When she was younger she wanted to be a dressmaker or a hairdresser. Both professions involve measuring and cutting. Today she takes her scissors to texts.

When she left the country in 1987 it was not jumping on a plane and going from A to B. Exile meant fleeing the country irrevocably. "I am not homeless," Irene says in "Travelling on One Leg", which was first published in 1989. "I am not homeless. Just abroad. A foreigner abroad." Herta Müller's characters are people stranded on the banks of foreign rivers, sitting on damp benches, people who no longer know whether they are thin-soled travellers in these towns or respectable inhabitants carrying hand luggage.

The fictional characters in her novels sit squarely on the ground of terrifyingly real events, her visual style of writing owes much to the Banatian dialect, the language of her parents, and the Romanian language, which was spoken by her friends in school, rather than any literary education. There were no books in her parents' house except "Deutsche Lebensschule" and prayer books. And these books were not read so much as used to swat flies. There is no word for "loneliness" in the Banatian dialect. She was "alone". Alone is more inexorable than lonely. Language forms emotions.

Herta Müller is extremely outspoken, but her target is not language itself. She asks the questions, tests the meanings, rejects connections imposed by logic. "How often," she asks in her collection of essays "Hunger und Seide" (hunger and silk) "and carelessly do we use the word normal"? Dictators hoodwink us with the words "normal" and "normality". They know that these words are a necessity for everyone. She makes her readers aware of what words mean, and the cargo of meaning they drag with them. "I cannot," she says in an interview, "just lock my head away, I have to keep thinking with it. I spent thirty years living in a dictatorship."

Probably every author has a few readers who like to claim that their first or second book was the best. And which is Herta Müller's best? "Nadirs", her first book or "The Passport", her third? But what about "The Land of Green Plums" or the "Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger" (even then, the fox was the hunter) or her essays, or collage poems? "Writing," it says in "Der Teufel Sitzt im Spiegel" (the devil sits in the mirror), "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."

In the breaks between writing, in which she tries to live life, she makes collages from old newspapers, and out comes poetry. She sits like Rapunzel in a tower of old newspapers, literally cutting out words, and spinning together the ones that get under her skin. And her characters do the same. When she makes collages in "Travelling on One Leg" Irene feels "as if she were cutting out individual moments of people's lives, as if she were holding in her hand the things that happen to her and others on a daily basis." The collages become poems, assembled according to inscrutable rhythms and whimisical aesthetics. Creating collages is the fulfilment of a childhood dream of hairdressing and dressmaking, it is her cheap and creative downtime. Herta Müller uses words written by others. When she creates collages she can pretend it wasn't her. One of the collage poems goes like this:

kurz darauf sagt Barbara
mein Vater war Nazi
mein Sohn is ein Skin
mein Mann Demokrazi
mit Doppelkinn
meine Tochter, die wird Sängerin

(then Barbara said / my father was a Nazi / my son's a skin / my husband, democrazi / with a double chin
my daughter, she's going to sing)

Herta Müller does not invent her life from the past. She only filters it through the experiences of the past. Her pregnant, furious, hard and poetic sentences turn to images in the moment of their reading.


Herta Müller was born on 17 August 1953 in Nitzkydorf (Banat/Romania). Her parents belonged to the German-speaking minority. Her father was a lorry driver, her mother a peasant. She attended school and university in Temeswar. After refusing to work for the Romanian secret service, the Securitate, she lost her job as translator in a machine factory. "Nadirs", her first book, lay around at the publishers for four years and was heavily censored when it was eventually published. The manuscript was smuggled to Germany and published in 1984. In 1987, she emigrated to German and has lived in Berlin ever since. She has a string of literary prizes to her name, including the Aspekte Literature Prize (1984), the Kleist Prize (1994), the Prix Aristeion (1995), the Konrad Adenauer prize for literature (2004) and, now, the Nobel Prize for literature.

TeaserPicThis article was orginially printed in "Leidenschaften" a book about 99 women writers from around the world by Verena Auffermann, Gunhild Kübler, Ursula März and Elke Schmitter, (Bertelsmann)

Translation: lp

Read an excerpt from Herta Muller's latest novel "Everything I Own I Carry With Me". - let's talk european