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Ode to Herta Müller

Romanian novelist Mircea Cartarescu celebrates Herta Müller's Nobel Prize, raising his glass to a writer with an inner sword and a literary style that is pure poetry.

I am thrilled that Herta Müller has won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. We have met rather randomly, but now I am proud of all the times we were in the same room together, of having participated in events with her, in Sibiu and other places, of having given a joint interview last year in Stockholm, even of having appeared in the same photographs. She always seemed to me an extraordinary person, I was always amazed by how much power and noblesse can fit into such a tiny and fragile frame. She always intimidated me with this force, with her tragic yet lucid mask.

Herta won this prize, as the jury said, "for her honesty in describing the world of the dispossessed". It is much more than that. Her style is not "honest", it is simply brilliant, it is pure poetry. Her aspiration to purity, moral included, is like an inner sword, it's as if she had a a sword instead of a spine, as in one of Kafka's dreams. Her answers to the beauty and horror of this world are either yes, yes or no, no, like the Gospel parable. Nothing in between, no compromise between an obsessive revulsion for the opressors and an obsessive compassion for their victims.

Herta speaks Romanian like myself, she is saturated with the Romanian language, culture and literature, she has always been obsessed with Romanian poetic expressions in the common language that she uses and develops in so many of her novels. Everything she has written is set in Romania, a country that she loves and hates, a country which, even if it has damaged her (it has certainly left deep scars on her brain ) it is a part of her living memory, is part of her at least as much as Germany is. The baroque but still criminal dictatorship in Romania has made her what she is now, having lodged deep in her mind the traumatic grain of sand that produced the pearl.

The writings of Herta Müller are indeed the product of an intense obsession, a unique, paranoid terror of being followed, held in suspicion, persecuted, of having to fight a pervasive and incomprehensible enemy, which is bent on defacing and and misrepresenting her. Her writing is Kafkaesque. But this doesn't explain her style, which is the other part of her work Her style is that of a poet or painter with surrealist roots, a Frida Kahlo maybe. This seems to have been Herta's primary vocation. We can only speculate about what her writing would have become if Romania were a free world. I'm certain she would still have been a great poet, but she would not have been Herta Müller.

Today her face was everywhere in Berlin, in all the newspapers and on all the screens in the underground. It was like being in a dream. For it was Herta I know, the small, intense woman dressed in black, who was so kind and gentle to me each time we met, while I felt guilty and shy. The German woman whom we thought was so Romanian, which she actually never was.

The Nobel Prize for Herta Müller is an honour she deserves absolutely, but it also honour for Germany. Not because Herta is German, but because the German state and the German cultural industry had the wisdom to recognise her when she was a simple immigrant, the generosity to admire her when she published her books, and the faith that propelled her to where she is now. In other words, where she has always been.


This article was originally published on 12 October 2009, in the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Mircea Cartarescu was born in Bucharest in 1956 and is one of Romania's leading novelists.
Read our feature "Bucharest in a trance" on Cartarescu and his magnum opus "The Knowing". - let's talk european