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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2011



T. Jeevan Kumar

Herta Müller: The Voice of the Dispossessed

Herta Müller, a Nobel Laureate for Literature 2009, is a highly prolific Romanian-born German novelist, poet, and essayist, portrays in her writings the brutal Romanian dictatorship and also the rootlessness of the exiled subjects.  Her works depict the harsh conditions of life in Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989), an autocrat, a nepotist, and the President of the Communist Party, whose notorious secret police (the Securitate) crushed internal opposition and kept tight control over the government, media, and civil society.

The grim life under Ceausescu’s oppressive regime and the harsh treatment of Romanian Germans has featured strongly in her works.  Corruption, intolerance and repression are also major themes in her writing.1

Besides this, Müller’s works describe the persecution of Romanian ethnic German by Stalinist Soviet occupying forces in Romania and the Soviet-imposed communist regime of Romania.  According to Nobel Committee, Herta Müller, who charted the hardships and humiliations of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal regime, won the 2009 Nobel Literature prize for depicting the landscape of the dispossessed.2

Born on August 17, 1953, in the German-speaking village of Nitchidorf, in the Romanian Banat in western Romania, Herta Müller left her village to study German and Romanian literature at the University of Timisoara.  There she became part of the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of idealistic Romanian-German writers seeking freedom of expression under the Ceausescu dictatorship.  After completing her studies she was employed as a translator in an engineering factory, but was dismissed for her refusal to cooperate with the Securitate.  She had become an internationally well-known author since the early 1990s when her works such as The Passport, The Land of Green Plums, and The Appointment were translated into English.  Though she has about 20 books to her credit only 5 are translated into English.  Besides English, her works have been translated into more than 20 languages.  She has received over 20 awards which include the 1994 Kleist Prize, the 1995 Aristeion Prize (European Literary Prize) for Herztier, the 1998 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Land of Green Plums,and the 2009 Franz Werfel Human Rights Award for her novel Everything I Possess I Carry With Me.

Müller started her writing career in 1982 with a collection of short stories entitled Niederungen (English as Nadirs in 1999).  This was followed two years later by Druckender Tango (Oppressive Tago).  In these two works Müller depicted the hypocrisy of village life and its ruthless oppression of nonconformists.  She also portrayed the zealously fascist mentality of the German minority, its intolerance and corruption.  Not surprisingly, she was sharply criticized at home for destroying the idyllic image of German rural life in Romania. 

Later Müller migrated to the West with her husband, Richard Wagner, who is also a novelist and essayist.  The Passport (1989), her first translated novel into English, chronicles the efforts of a Romanian-German peasant family to get passports to leave the country who were unable to live under the brutal hardships of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Like her earlier works, it exposes the brutal corruption of the village by showing how its officials, from postmaster to priest, demanded ever more material and sexual favours from those petitioning to leave the country. 

The Land of Green Plums (1996) deals with “the issues faced by the writers and their relationship with the government censorship of their works.”3  It is Müller’s richest portrayal to the date of life in the Romanian dictatorship where the novelist links the repressive childhood of her narrator with the brutal oppression of the state.  The novel opens in a women’s university dormitory in Nicoae Ceausescu’s Romania, where Lola, a poor girl from the provinces, has come to study Russian.  In a Communist country short on consumer goods, Lola and her roommates dream of whisper-thin nylon stockings while making do with what they have.  Lola, unprepared for city life by her village childhood, has brutal sexual encounters, hangs herself with a bent and is posthumously expelled from the Communist Party.

The narrator of the novel is one of her roommates, soon herself an object of political suspicion, so that when she finally leaves the university, packing her pot of mascara, she finds an unpleasant surprise in her bed.  When she picks up the blanket to pull off the cover, she finds a pig’s ear that is sewed in the middle of the sheet like a button.  Later she learns that this is the girls’ way of saying farewell.  According to Larry Wolff,

The Land of Green Plums is a novel of graphically observed detail in which the author seeks to create a sort of poetry out of the spiritual and material ugliness of life in Communist Romania.4

The narrator watches the Romanian police guards in the streets of the city as they greedily pocket green plums.  She had been warned by her father not to eat green plums as it is dangerous.  But the guards do not hesitate.  She also watches the guards grabbing the young women in the streets.  After witnessing these things, she even thinks that one of these men must have followed Lola and mauled her with the greedy desire of a starved dog.  When the narrator ponders Lola’s pathetic fate, the novel encompasses not only the political persecution of dissidents and the harrassment of a national minority but also the particular kinds of oppression and vulnerability that women experience under a regime of policemen.  In the end, the narrator decides not to kill herself, as Lola did, but to immigrate to Germany, as most of Romania’s Germans have done, both before and since the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. 

The Land of Green Plums also addresses issues such as vampirish complicity in the bloody rituals of an oppressive regime, whose hungry subjects, whether stealing fresh offal or green plums, ingest political poisons with historically portracted, corrosive consequences.  Through this novel, Müller coveys a certain sadness over the historical implications of emigration, the impending doom of her own native culture and society.  She also offers a potent and repellent depiction of the world she left behind in Romania.  As the novel is based on a close friend from Aktionsgruppe Banat and written after the deaths of two friends in which Müller suspected the Securitate’s involvement, she dedicated it to Romanian friends who were killed under Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule.

Müller’s another power novel The Appointment (2001) is about a Romanian woman who sews notes, saying “Marry Me” into suits of men bound for Italy.  The thuggery of the government forms a backdrop to the novel.  Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Peter Filkins describes,

The Appointment as using the thuggery of the government as a backdrop to the brutality and betrayal with which people treat one another in their everyday lives, be they spouses, family members or the closest of friends.5

The novel goes into great detail about living under a stagnated dictatorship.  The unnamed narrator contemplates the innumerable ways in which the treachery of the government infects its citizens.  “I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned,” says the narrator as she rides a tram to her interrogation by Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) under Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime.  There her interrogator, Major Albu, places a wet kiss on her hand before questioning her relentlessly for hours.  These sessions, however, do not happen on a regular schedule, but at Albu’s whim, thus forcing the narrator to live a life in which she fears being called in on any given day, never knowing if she will be arrested for good. 

With the spectre of the regime constantly hovering over her, it is no surprise that the narrator can trust no one.  Even love suffers under such conditions.  Often, she has to lie or keep her mouth shut to protect the people whom she loves most.  She realizes that in the world, no bond is unbreakable, no loyalty is lasting, and no future is certain.  Instead, life amounts to a sequence of arbitrary episodes, each undermining the other.  Because of this, her private effort to impose order on a wide array of losses amounts to a political stance in itself.  The narrator's pathetic attempt at emigration while sewing her name, address and a note saying ''Marry me'' into jackets bound for Italy from the clothing factory where she works can only mean that she is guilty of prostitution while on the job, as well as much else Albu seeks to get out of her.  ''You see, everything is connected,'' he yells at her, to which she coolly replies, ''In your mind they are, in my mind they aren't.''

The narrator's isolation and the numbing way in which she walks through life while wondering, is more a test of endurance than a pleasure.  The novel follows the twists and turns of the narrator’s memories and consciousness as she thinks of a world in which ‘happiness had become a liability,’ and even ‘tenderness has its own meshes.’  

Müller’s most recent novel Everything I Possess I Carry With Me portrays the persection of ethnic Germans in Romania by the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union and deals with the deportation of Romanian Germans to a Gulag concentration camp by Soviet occupying forces as an example for the fate of German population in Transylvania after World War II.  It is about the journey of a 17-year old boy Leo Auberg who is deported to the Soviet concentration camp to live long five years of ‘superhuman inhumanities.’ 

Müller wrote this novel when she was inspired by the experience of poet Oskar Pastior, the Romanian-born German poet and translator who wanted to write a book on the sufferings in the Gulag but died in 2006.  His oral memories Müller had made notes of, but also by what happened to her own mother who also lived in the Concentration camp of Gulag Archipelago.  In the words of Dr. Ratan, The novel may be described ‘the workshop of a true poet.’  Müller seems to have mingled historical exposition and own personal passions.6   

Echoes of Kafka, a Jewsih novelist and short-story writer, whose disturbing, symbolic fiction, written in German, prefigured the oppression and despair of the late 20th century, can be found throughout Herta Müller’s life and work.  Like Kafka writing German in Bohemia, she left as a double outsider, a writer evoking alienation in a minority language.  One surreal episode in her novel The Land of Green Plums describes her narrator‘s farewell after she has fallen under political suspicion.  She lifts the cover from her bed and finds a pig's ear in the middle of the sheet.  “I shook the sheet but the ear didn't move, it was sewn on in the middle like a button.”

Müller is as deserving a writer as she is a representative of dispossession and the autarchy of vampires that was once Romania. Her prose reacts lightly to her subject, her eloquence is precisely imaged, her sense of mischief – another echo of Kafka – to be savoured.  There I think the comparison ends.7

Muller’s intense sufferings distilled her vision as an artist.  Her works are characterized by pure, poetic language and metonymic metaphor that recur and evolve throughout her tales.  The oppressiveness of theme is alleviated by the beauty of her prose and the flashes of humor behind some of her imagery. 

Thus, Herta Müller, came out as a German’s literary comet “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”8  Her award coincides with the  anniversary of the fall of the Communism in Europe.  Michael Krüger, the head of Müller's publisher, stated:

By giving the award to Herta Müller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, the committee has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten.9

He further said that in Romania, German speaking people as well as the common sufferers had been waiting for a bold voice.  It was at last heard when Herta Muller emerged on the literary scene with the same force as Octavio Paz, the prolific Mexican writer who regarded himself as a leftist in spite of his rejection of communist dogma.  While Paz was a poet, Muller was a novelist who speaks loudly in baritone voice against the repression and the tortures unleashed in the name of communism.




Agence France-Presse, “German wins literature Nobel,” The New Indian Express, October 9, 2009: 11.

Andrew Nagorski, “Nightmare or Reality?” (Review) Newsweek International, 2001.

Julian, Evan, “Herta Müller: An eye on absurdity,” The Guardian, October 8, 2009.

Larry Wolff, “Herta Müller: Strangers in a Strange Land,” New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996.

Nobel Citation.
Nobel Committee, The Hindu, October 9, 2009: 11.

Peter Filkins, “Herta Müller: Betrayal as a Way of Life,” The New York Times, October 21, 2001.

Dr. Ratan, “Herta Müller: The Nobel Laureate of 2009,” January 24, 2010. 85.shtml