Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.
The 56-year-old author, who emigrated to Germany from then-communist Romania in 1987, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled “Niederungen,” or “Lowlands” in English, which was promptly censored by her government. [. . .]
In 1987 she emigrated to Germany with her husband two years before dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe.
Mueller’s parents were members of the German-speaking minority in Romania and father served in the Waffen SS during World War II.
After the war ended, many German Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union in 1945, including her mother, who spent five years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine.
I’m sure Entertainment Weekly won’t be the only publication to run a “Herta who? These books sound depressingly complex” sort of article, but rather than revisit that sinkpit of an argument1 (thankfully this year there was no controversial statement from Horace Engdahl to really piss off the U.S. literati), I thought I’d just post the PW/_LJ_ reviews of all of her books that have been translated into English. I remember reading about The Land of Green Plums when it came out, but admittedly, I never got around to reading it . . .
Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, published by University of Nebraska Press)
Mueller, who won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums, is considered one of the most gifted contemporary German-language writers, a claim this newly translated collection of stories would seem to prove. Once again, Mueller takes us back to Communist Romania. But unlike her previous work, Nadirs is a very personal book, as much about Mueller’s own family sagas as it is about the inescapable scars of communism. Perhaps the most pertinent word to describe this dainty collection is contradiction—the narratives portray what is real and undeniable in a surreal and almost absurd way, yet the seemingly unadorned storytelling demands the maximum concentration from the reader. Originally published in German ten years ago, this book was well worth the wait; it is an important achievement in contemporary Eastern European literature. (Library Journal)
The Passport (translated by Martin Chalmers, published by Serpent’s Tail)
This English-language debut by a Romanian-born West Berliner is remarkable for its stylistic purity. Muller’s angry tale of an ethnic German anxious to emigrate from his stultifying Romanian village is relayed in deceptively straightforward sentences (“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”) that pile up in striking patterns (later, “the second snow came. . . . The hedgehog stabbed”). Intently focused prose animates the parochial town with its corrupt power brokers, gamey folk songs and a tree reputed to have eaten its own apples, as well as the problematic relations among the central character, his embittered wife and their nubile daughter, who, like her mother before her during the war, is forced to grant sexual favors to men of privilege. (Publishers Weekly)
Traveling on One Leg (translated by Valentina Glajar and Andre LeFevere, published by Northwestern University Press)
For some, the pain of exile is too great even to be named. So it is for Irene, the 35-year-old protagonist of this slender but intense novel. In the 1980s, Irene has emigrated to West Germany from an unnamed Eastern bloc country to escape political persecution. Adrift in Berlin, living first in a refugee hostel and then in an anonymous apartment complex, Irene struggles to maintain her sanity while caught in an ambiguously romantic quadrangle with three men. First there is Franz, a student a decade her junior; then there is his friend Stefan, a sociologist; last is Stefan’s friend Thomas, a gay man in perpetual emotional crisis. But Irene’s largest preoccupation is with herself, and the novel presents a knife-sharp portrait of her acute isolation and uprootedness. Irene’s anxiety as she faces her adoptive homeland’s hectoring refugee bureaucracy, her unsentimental observation of Berlin street life and her rigorously controlled homesickness is depicted in spare prose that is never less than striking. The reader with a distaste for indirection, or for the kind of heroine who considers children “eerie because they’re still growing,” will find this novel slow going. But those patient enough to pick out the plot line amid the poetry will be rewarded with a small trove of unforgettable images. (Publishers Weekly)
The Land of Green Plums (translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Northwestern University Press)
Five Romanian youths under the Ceausescu regime are the focus of this moving depiction of the struggle to become adults who keep “eyes wide open and tightly shut at the same time.” Through the suicide of a mutual friend, the unnamed narrator—a young woman studying to become a translator—meets a trio of young men with whom she shares a subjugated political and philosophic rebelliousness. The jobs the state assigns them after graduation pull each to a different quadrant of the country, and this, as well as the narrator’s new friendship with the daughter of a prominent Party member, strains their relations. The group manages to maintain its closeness anyway, through coded letters bearing strands of the sender’s hair as a tamper-warning. As the friends begin to lose their jobs and grow weary of being followed, threatened and pulled in for semi-regular interrogations, each one thinks increasingly about escape. Terrifyingly, the narrator finds herself changing into a stranger: “someone who keeps company with misery, to make sure it stays put.” Making her American debut, Muller is well-served by the workmanlike translation; though her lyrical writing falters badly at times (such as the baffling, repeated metaphor that gives the book its title), it also soars to rarefied heights. Most importantly, few books have conveyed with such clarity the convergence of terror and boredom under totalitarianism.
The Appointment (translated by Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse, published by Metropolitan)
The hardships and humiliations of Communist Romania are on display in this taut novel by the winner of the European Literature Prize (Müller, author of the well-received Land of Green Plums, emigrated to Berlin after being persecuted by the Romanian secret police). The narrator, an unnamed young dress-factory worker of the post-WWII generation, has been summoned for questioning by the secret police; she has been caught sewing notes into men’s suits destined for Italy, with the desperate message “marry me” along with her address. Accused of prostitution in the workplace (and told she is lucky the charge is not treason), she loses her job, and her life becomes subject to the whims of Major Albu, who summons her for random interrogation sessions. Her major preoccupation is holding on to her sanity. This is a nearly impossible feat in a society where opportunity is limited, trust is a commodity as scarce as decent food or shoe leather, and even sinister Party henchmen are shown to be trapped in a ridiculous charade. As she travels to a questioning session, the woman spools out the tale of her past: her attempt to achieve independence after a first marriage, only to hastily fall into a second one with Paul, an alcoholic who fashions illegal television antennas for the black market; and her friendship with the beautiful and doomed Lilli, a fellow factory worker. The sharp generational divide following the war and the dreadful ways in which people learn to cope with the Communist regime are threaded throughout as are some lighter moments, shaky though they may be. Appropriately disorienting and tightly wound, this perfectly controlled narrative offers a chilling picture of human adaptation and survival under oppression.
One last “I-will-beat-the-horse-dead” comment: Of the five books of Mueller’s available in English, four of them are published by university or independent presses. That sounds about right. And might be one of the reasons American publishers/media get all pissed about American authors not receiving the award—the money is flowing into the pockets of the small guys for once.
1 Or at least not revisit it too much: Really, why do Americans want the obvious American writers to always win? Isn’t this like rooting for the Yankees? What fun is it when UNC wins the NCAA tournament every other year? None at all. Fuck that noise. It’s much cooler when an “obscure” (by American standards at least) author is given such a great honor and has her/his books launched into bookstores across the country and into the hands of readers everywhere. It’s like Stephen Curry bringing Davidson to the brink of History. Besides, this isn’t a popularity contest—it’s an honor bestowed on a talented writer. Just let the patriotism go and use this award as a chance to find out about writers you don’t already know. (All that aside, my money’s on Thomas Ruggles Pynchon for 2010.)
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