Discovering Herta Müller
Herta Müller, winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, was another dark horse. Writers in Romania, where she was born in 1953, took legitimate pride in her victory but seemed as surprised as most critics around the world. In Germany, her home since fleeing her native country in 1987, her literary reputation has remained high for a couple of decades—she won the Kleist Prize in 1994—if never on a level of international visibility to rival the last two honorees from there, Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass.
After reading five of the six novels so far translated into English, as well as pieces from several others and a few essays I translated clumsily from German on my own, I am happy to have made Ms. Müller's acquaintance without being eager to revisit her. The award is traditionally bestowed on writers as much for their humanist politics as for daring experiments in form and language, and Ms. Müller follows this uplifting pattern.
Oppression in its many guises and the lifelong struggle to escape its imprisoning shadows preoccupy her work. Born in the multiethnic, polyglot region of Banat in east-central Romania, she grew up Catholic among German speakers, many of them with ancestors from Swabia in southern Germany. Her father served in the S.S. during World War II. In several of her books, the dull authoritarianism of life in a rural village is mirrored by the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, who rose to power in 1965 when she was 8.
Ms. Müller became another kind of distrusted minority after she exiled herself to Hamburg. The West Germans willingly recognized her as a political refugee (at least until the fall of the Berlin Wall) but not as a person of their own blood.
She made a splash with her first book, "Niederrungen," published in Germany in 1984. (Romanian bureaucrats censored an earlier edition.) The title of this slim volume has been translated awkwardly by Sieglinde Lug as "Nadirs," a word I have never seen as a plural in English and one that misses the pun on Nibelung, the race of dwarves from German myth and in Wagner's cycle of operas. The peasants here are indeed moral lowlifes, and the narrator recalls their casual brutality with a merciless eye: "The kittens that were born in the winter were drowned in a bucket of hot water, and those born in the summer were drowned in a bucket of cold water." The sentences are spare, with almost no dependent clauses and few proper names, as though this were a cautionary fairy tale told by a mother to a child. This unnamed village is certainly no place for a person of sensitivity to grow up. A state Cultural Center is as comfortless as her home life.
Ms. Müller's memories of violence and ignoble nature—maggots, worms, spiders and lice abound—read like an absurd catalog of woe, albeit one relieved by moments of grim poetry: "The sound of the axe is in the well. The witch is chopping her wood indoors again. There is a smell of burnt apples from her chimney.
"Santas are walking around in the village.
"Children are afraid of their nuts and oranges.
Her next novel, translated into English as "The Passport," concerns a village miller in Romania yearning to start a new life with his wife in West Germany. Published in 1986, a year after her request for such a move was rejected by officials, it has the same clipped prose cadences as "Nadirs," this time applied to evoke the trapped mentality of a man so desperate for freedom that he views everything through a temporal lens, like a prisoner staring at a calendar in his cell: "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. And Windisch sees that the night watchman will stay beyond the end."
The other four novels translated into English have appeared since Ms. Müller and her then-husband, the writer Richard Wagner, were finally allowed to leave. The main character in "Traveling on One Leg" is one of her many thinly veiled self-portraits. Irene is a recent émigré from Romania involved with three men in three different German cities. Her erotic confusion ("not even after the long French kiss did Irene know whether Thomas or Franz had kissed her") is compounded by and perhaps the result of her statelessness. (Ms. Müller and Mr. Wagner divorced a few years after arriving in their new homeland.)
"The Land of Green Plums," published here in 1996, may be the best gateway to Ms. Müller's work, if only for its stronger plot and wider urban scope. (The German title, "Herztier," which might be rendered as "Wild at Heart," better conveys the savagery of the action.) The scene is Ceausescu's Romania, where a group of young men and women weave plots of love and betrayal, aided by the secret police. The narrator, a female student, is remembering what befell her friends as they waited for the atmosphere of constant suspicion and dread to end, never sure if it ever would: "We were broken, sick of the rumors about the dictator's imminent death, weary of people killed trying to flee. We were moving closer and closer to obsession with flight, without even knowing it."
"The Appointment," translated in 2001, again portrays the emotional degradations of Communist Romania. The main female character, a young factory worker, will be fired unless she cooperates with the secret police, a choice also faced by the young Ms. Müller. "Everything I Possess I Carry With Me," her most recent novel and scheduled for imminent release here, describes the plight of German-born Romanians sent to gulags in the Soviet Union after World War II, a fate suffered by her mother.
Kafka is the most commonly cited ancestor for Ms. Müller's writing. His empathy for the powerless and his alien status as a Czech Jew writing in German reflects her own mingled heritage. The blunt rhythms of Brecht, another Swabian, also can be heard in her prose. Joyce, Faulkner and Woolf seem to have influenced her evocations of childhood.
Political themes dominate her books of essays. Her 1995 collection, "Hunger und Seide" (Hunger and Silk), ranges from a speech in which she reminiscences about her grandfather's horse and appletrees—fruit trees are summoned to perform various metaphoric functions in her books—to a critique of male and female behavior under what she calls "alltagsfascismus" (everyday Fascism). Her second collection, "In der Falle" (In the Trap), published a year later, commemorates three writers who stood up against persecution by the state.
Admirable and courageous as Ms. Müller has been in her life, she does not substantially alter previous reports about the dreary terror of existence under communism. Moreover, the pointilist impressionism she favors in her novels often blurs character definition and kills any chance for dramatic conclusions. Her instincts are those of a poet, not a novelist.
I realize this judgment may confirm the prejudice, expressed last year by some Europeans, that hidebound Americans resist new writing from abroad. I can only say in defense that I opened these books in hopes of discovering another Halldór Laxness, Wislawa Szymborska or Orhan Pamuk, authors unknown to me until the Nobel's imprimatur and now among my favorites. Ms. Müller's worthy books should find a place on many shelves but, for English readers at least, I suspect they will stay there.
—Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.