There was a time, in my early twenties, when I only read novels by people who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This resulted in me reading many good books. And a few naff ones. Having won the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean that everything that author has written will be a work of genius particularly if it’s an early work in their career.
The recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize was the Romanian writer Herta Müller whose first book was published in 1982; she’s 56 now, a comparatively young writer considering the fact that Doris Lessing, the last woman to be honoured, was 87 when she received her award. Müller’s writing focuses on life under the brutal Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu and, in a radio interview, she explains why:
I have no other landscape other than the one I know, the one I came from. [My] literary characters reflect what happens to the human being in a totalitarian society or system. And I believe this is not a topic that I chose, but rather one that my life has chosen for me. I don't have that freedom of choice. I cannot say: 'I want to write about that thing, or about that other thing.' I am bound to write about what concerns me and about the things that won't leave me in peace.
People write about what shapes them. For some it will be an overbearing parent but for others what goes on in the home is merely a reflection of the society that home is a part of.
When she received the award only one book by her was available in English, The Passport, a novella a mere 92 pages in length. Having a fondness for short books I ordered the thing there and then but it’s only recently I’ve got round to reading it. Since then publishers have rushed to reprint some of her other eighteen books, five of which have been translated into English so far.
The original title of the book is Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt which we might translate roughly as Man is a Large Pheasant in the World. It’s a line that appears in the book, a Romanian proverb which underlines man's status as prey for fate. Whatever its title the subject matter concerns a family’s difficulty in obtaining a passport.
It is an odd book to have been written by a Nobel laureate. Seriously it reads in parts like a Dick and Jane reader. The Nobel committee, in their citation, refer to the “frankness of [her] prose” and there will be not a few people who’ll pick up this book and wonder what got into the heads of those who nominated her in the first place. On one level she is very easy to read. There are no complicated words although a brief glossary at the back of the book explains the significance of three terms for the benefit of non-Romanians. But that’s it.
Windisch is a miller, a Swabian, that is, as the glossary explains, one of the “German-speaking minority in the Banat” which is a “[f]ormer Hungarian province under the Habsburg monarchy. After the First World War it was divided between Romania and Yugoslavia.” Windisch is married with a grown daughter, Amalie, a nursery-school teacher. He has applied for a passport so they can all emigrate to West Germany The book opens with him cycling to his mill, counting the days:
Since Windisch made the decision to emigrate, he sees the end everywhere in the village. And time standing still for those who want to stay.
He is up to two hundred and twenty-one days and still no passport. He has, of course, resorted to bribery. The previous summer the mayor had told him:
Another five deliveries, Windisch, then the money at New Year. And at Easter you’ll have your passport.
The Romanians don't like the Germans and are happy for them to go but they don’t make acquiring a passport easy. Windisch has now made twelve deliveries of flour, paid the full ten thousand lei demanded of him and Easter is a distant memory, still he sees no sign of any passport. Others have theirs, the skinner for example, who is now emptying his house, selling off everything he owns, in readiness for leaving. How have others managed when he has not? It seems that sacks of flour and even hard cash is not enough; sex apparently is the preferred currency and who is going to want to sleep with his missus? Which only leaves his daughter.
Müller was born and raised in the German-speaking town of Niţchidorf, Romania in 1953, in effect being born into exile. Her father served in the Waffen-SS (the crack combat troops of the Nazi Party) in World War II, and her mother was deported to a work camp in the Soviet Union in 1945. “She spent five years in a labour camp, paying for the ‘collective guilt’ of Hitler's deeds. They called that internment ‘Aufbauarbeit,’ ‘reconstruction work.’” I have no idea how much the mother in the book is based on Müller’s own mother but I found one of the most touching chapters was ‘Grass Soup’ which is a flashback to the mother’s five years in Russia. It begins:
Windisch’s wife had been in Russia for five years. She had slept in a hut with iron beds. Lice cracked in the edges of the beds. She was shaved. Her face was grey. Her scalp was red-raw.
The chapter then goes through with us what he had to do to survive:
When the snow melted the first time, thin, pointed grass grew in the stone hollows. Katharina had sold her winter coat for ten slices of bread. Her stomach was a hedgehog. Every day Katharina picked a bunch of grass. The grass soup was warm and good. The hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.
Then the second snow came. Katharina had a woollen blanket. During the day it was her coat. The hedgehog stabbed.
When it was dark, Katharina followed the light of the snow. She bent down. She crawled past the guard’s shadow. Katharina went into a man’s iron bed. He was a cook. He called her Käthe. He warmed her and gave her potatoes. They were hot and sweet. The hedgehog pulled in its spines for a few hours.
And so the years progress. When the cook dies she moves onto the doctor and from him to the gravedigger; she sells what she has until when the fifth snow came, “Katharina’s brown cloth dress was her coat.” But she survives through a mixture of sheer determination and maybe a little kindness. The world she finds herself in now she is back home, where the authorities can come and cherry-pick from their stock or demand bribes to do the most ordinary of things, is not new to her. What is new is that she is now incapable of doing what’s required.
Needless to say, Windisch is also unhappy about what he is going to have to require of his daughter. In an earlier chapter, ‘Mass’, his wife goes to mass but he refuses to join her:
“I’m not leaving the house,” says Windisch, “I don’t want people saying to me: now it’s your daughter’s turn.”
Windisch puts his elbows on the table. His hands are heavy. Windisch puts his face in his heavy hands. The veranda doesn’t grow. It’s broad daylight. For a moment the veranda falls to a place where it never was before. Windisch feels the blow. A stone hangs in his ribs.
Windisch closes his eyes. He feels his eyes. He feels his eyeballs in his hands. His eyes without a face.
With naked eyes and with the stone in his ribs, Windisch says loudly: “A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world.” What Windisch hears is not his voice. He feels his naked mouth. It’s the walls that have spoken.
This is a very typical passage. It’s also almost a complete chapter, albeit one of the shorter ones; none are more than a page or two.
Lyn Marven, a lecturer in German studies at the University of Liverpool who has written about Ms. Müller, said: “It’s an odd disjunction to write about traumatic experiences living under a dictatorship in a very poetic style. It’s not what we expect, certainly.”
This is very true. And ‘poetic’ is just one word that people have used to describe the writing in this book. Others have been ‘surrealist’, ‘magic realist’ and ‘fable-like’ and there are bits of the book to which each and every one of those expressions could be applied, like this one:
or this one:
Before the war an apple tree had stood behind the church. It was an apple tree that ate its own apples.
The night watchman’s father had also been night watchman. One summer he was standing behind the boxwood hedge. He saw the apple tree open a mouth at the top of the trunk, where the branches forked. The apple tree ate apples.
In some cases the allegorical language is clear – that both the priest and the militiaman seek sexual favours is clearly indicative of the individual being screwed (metaphorically) by both church and state and an owl as a symbol of death is an old one – but I can’t pretend I know what the butterfly is all about.
I’m sure knowing a bit about the history would be of a help in understanding this work but it’s not essential. The sad fact is that too many people throughout the world will know exactly what it’s like to live in a country where corrupt government officials are the norm. Fellow Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu calls her work “Kafkaesque”. He says:
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 misrepresenting her.
He’s right too. And yet there is great beauty in her descriptions. I suppose it’s like many of the depictions of the Crucifixion: great art but whatever way you look at it it’s still depicting a man being executed in a particularly cruel way.
What do people cling to when trapped? Faith, superstition and tradition. They overindulge in what’s available. Sex usually. Often drink. Gossip even. Whatever gets you though the day. And that’s how Windisch and his neighbours cope. They make the most of small things.
This is a book that has polarised readers. I’ve seen five-star reviews and I’ve seen it panned. Admittedly those who say they don’t like it admit that this is because they found its overbearing hopelessness a drain (a few compare it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when searching for something they can relate to), that and the dense language is hard to get to grips with. These are fair comments. Everyone’s entitles to their own opinion. I don’t happen to agree with these people. I read the book over a couple of days but in several sittings. Like poetry, or flash fiction, it’s not good to try and gobble down a book like this. Also I found there was there was a wee bit of rereading necessary, bits like the butterfly flying through someone; I wasn’t sure I hadn’t misread that but, no, that’s what she’s written. And you simply cannot read her quickly. You need to breathe after every sentence: read a bit, breathe; read a bit, breathe; read a bit, breathe.
Müller didn’t get the Nobel Prize on the back of one book though. From what I’ve read about her this is probably not her best book either. I suspect that might prove to be The Land of Green Plums which won the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the German Kleist Prize but we’ll see. It’s now available again in English and is clocking up five-star reviews on Amazon.
Some believe that Herta Müller's victory reveals a European bias among the committee – there have been a lot of European winners of late – other have suggested that it was a way of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mostly the cry was: “Who she?” The fact is that’s she’s not a very public figure and hardly known outwith Germany but when you check out her Wikipedia entry, the books she’s written and the prizes she’s already won you can see why she would have been a contender.
Like other writers I’ve written about over the past few months, for example, Dương Thu Hương, Ma Jian, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Herta Müller was bullied by the State. Müller studied German and Romanian literature at university and became involved with the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German speaking writers who opposed Ceauşescu's dictatorship and sought freedom of speech.
After graduation she became a translator at a factory, but she lost her job when she when she refused to serve as an informant for the Securitate (the secret police).
She described how agents or "securists" bugged her house, hounded her from her job, turned friends against her, interrogated her, threatened to kill her and even continued to follow her once she had left Romania – incidents that are dealt with in detail in her novels.
Müller also detailed the "psychological terror" she endured over years. "The secret service came and went as it liked when we weren't at home. Often they left deliberate signs that they'd been there such as planting cigarette butts, taking pictures off the wall, turning chairs upside down. The creepiest thing was stretched over weeks, when a fox fur that was on the floor was bit by bit taken apart – the tail, the feet and finally the head was cut off," she wrote.
While she has been celebrated in her adopted Germany (she emigrated in 1987 and is now living in Berlin), Müller's achievement has attracted mixed reactions in her homeland and include accusations that she has deliberately sought to denigrate Romania. In a 2007 article for the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau Müller said Romania had developed "collective amnesia" over its past: "They're pretending that it disappeared into thin air...” which maybe goes some way to explain why Cristian Tudor Popescu, one of Romania's most prominent journalists, said that Müller's reputation was based purely on her ability to attack the Ceauşescu regime, rather than on any literary merit: "When she got the prize she spoke about the dictatorship, but not about literature, as if she were Nelson Mandela. The Nobel Peace prize would have suited her better."
I imagine much the same might be said about Solzhenitsyn and Stalin.
One of the saddest things I read about, in the aforementioned essay, was what she had to say about her friend, Jenny:
A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task.
Müller's new novel Atemschaukel, which follows the story of a German-Romanian teenager deported to a Ukrainian labour camp, will be published in the UK next year after independent press Portobello Books fought off five other publishers to acquire translation rights. It will also have a name change, to Everything I Possess I Carry With Me. I look forward to it with interest.
The Passport is a haunting book. I have no doubt that what Müller went through that resulted in the writing of this book will haunt her for the rest of her life.
There are three non-consecutive chapters of The Passport available online here.
Markus Wein, ‘The Germans in Romania – the Ambiguous Fate of a Minority', The Expulsion of the ‘German’ Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, ed. Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees
 Kate Connolly, ‘Herta Müller "has a psychosis", claims Romanian agent who spied on her’, The Guardian, 26th November 2009
 Quoted in Shane Dingman, ‘German author Herta Mueller wins Nobel Prize for literature’, National Post, 8th October 200.
 Kate Connolly, ‘Herta Müller "has a psychosis", claims Romanian agent who spied on her’, The Guardian, 26th November 2009