For a writer who insists that interviews are like reliving her interrogation by Romania’s secret police, Herta Mueller has a reassuringly robust laugh. When I meet the Nobel laureate in a London hotel, she clutches my arm and whispers: “I am a broken person.”
Yet as she recounts the psychological terror and surveillance she endured under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, her resilient mirth contradicts her.
A keen sense of comic absurdity may partly account for her survival. Born in 1953 into a German-speaking minority in Romania, she was both harassed as a political dissident by the authorities and ostracised by her Swabian community for “fouling the nest”. In Mueller’s novel The Land of Green Plums (1993), a village girl joins dissident students who long to cross the river Danube to freedom, but are hounded into breakdown or staged suicides.
Mueller lives in Berlin with her husband, German dramaturge Harry Merkle, whom she met in 1988, the year after she fled to West Germany. Death threats pursued her, as did smears that she was an informant for Ceausescu’s brutal secret police, the Securitate. Her Nobel lecture in 2009 described how she lost her job translating manuals at a tractor factory for refusing to be recruited by a “thick-boned colossus” who called her a “shirker, a slut and … a stray bitch”. Later, a regional Securitate chief who admitted bugging her home claimed she was psychotic and had been sacked as a teacher for smoking in the classroom. Her fiction charts fragile acts of resistance in a surreal totalitarian bureaucracy of lies, spies and intimate betrayals.
“Ceausescu was mad and he made half of Romania mad,” she says. “I’m mad because of him.”
It was that experience that led her to label mainland writer Mo Yan’s Nobel prize a “catastrophe”, rewarding an author whom she claims “celebrates censorship” and is too close to the central government. She said that handing the prize to the vice-chairman of the governmentbacked China Writers’ Association while 2010 peace laureate Liu Xiaobo remained in jail, was “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights”.
On December 6, in Stockholm, Sweden, to collect his prize, Mo added fuel to his detractors’ fire by again defending censorship. He said that he didn’t feel censorship should stand in the way of truth but that any defamation or rumours “should be censored”.
“I also hope that censorship, per se, should have the highest principle,” he added, in comments translated by an interpreter.
AGED 59, MUELLER HAS trawled her own life in what she terms “autofiction”. It is an “invented reality”, she says through an interpreter. “I lived through 50 or more interrogations, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with directly transposing events. Working with language requires beauty for me. I doubt you could do that in the same way in a memoir.”
Her German prose is made strange by invention (“heart-beast”, “breath-swing”). She writes with the “sensual” Romanian language – which she learned aged 15 – “always in my head”.
The Hunger Angel, published this year, is her least autobiographical novel. Its protagonist, Leo Auberg, is based on the poet Oskar Pastior, deported to Soviet Ukraine aged 17. In January 1945, after the Nazisupporting regime of Ion Antonescu had surrendered to the Red Army, all Romania’s ethnic Germans aged 17 to 45 were deported to forced labour camps to rebuild the shattered Soviet economy. Those who survived spent five years shovelling coal and hefting bricks in the gulag.
Mueller’s mother was among the shaven-headed deportees, and she returned home three years before Herta was born: “As a child I perceived my mother as an old woman.” All the villagers “knew of everyone who had been deported, but nobody was allowed to speak about it”.
To do so was not only anti-Soviet, but a reminder of Romania’s fascist past. Half a century later, Mueller spoke to former deportees from her village of Nitchidorf, and also approached Pastior, a Transylvanian living in Berlin. He supplied the details of daily life, from grim smelting furnaces to watery cabbage soup.
“Whereas my mother was a farmer’s wife, I was lucky because Oskar was an intellectual, able to reflect. But he was also very damaged.”
Pastior’s homosexuality was his “extra solitude”.
“Others in the camp did have relationships as best they could, but nobody could know about him: he would have been lynched, both by the camp’s authorities and his co-internees. That makes you very lonely, so you observe,” Mueller says.
They visited Ukraine together, aiming to co-write Pastior’s autobiography.
But when he died of a heart attack in 2006, the novel, which she rewrote from scratch, became her heartfelt memorial to the poet.
When it was published in Germany, in 2009, one critic objected that only those with direct experience should write about the camps.
“Anything in literature, including memory, is second-hand,” Mueller says. “The second generation will be involved through the damage done to their parents.”
As for those who say that gulag literature should not be so beautiful: “If we deny deported people their individuality, we put ourselves in the same position as the camps.”
Mueller says her mother, now in Berlin and aged 87, read the book, and told her: “That’s how it was.”
The Banat, the region where Mueller was born, was a Germanspeaking enclave of the Austro-Hungarian empire split between Romania and Yugoslavia after the first world war. Her father, a field labourer and alcoholic, was among many local volunteers for Adolf Hitler’s Waffen-SS.
“It was terrible to find my father on the murderers’ side. He was a simple man, and obstinate. When I spoke about the Nazis’ crimes, he always said, ‘Well, look at what the Russians did.’ When he spat on his shoes to shine them, I’d say, ‘Ah, that’s what a Nazi does.’ I didn’t make life easy for him.”
Mueller’s father was in the same tank division as novelist Gunter Grass, the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. When Grass’ teenage SS membership came to light in 2006, Mueller berated him for keeping quiet about it.
“If I charge my father with this, I must charge Grass, an intellectual, too,” she says. “He took the moral high ground for decades. His silence was a lie.”
She finds it unjust that there were “only civilians in the labour camps. My father wasn’t in the camp; it was my mother. He was still a prisoner of war in England. The soldiers weren’t home yet, so they took civilians too young for war, and many women. If my father had been taken, it would have been understandable.”
Mueller was 12 when Ceausescu took power, in 1965. She joined a dissident writers’ group while studying German and Romanian literature at Timisoara university in the early 1970s. Her background may have immunised her against pressure to collaborate.
“One warning was my father being 17 when he joined the SS. I thought, ‘I’m nearly his age, in a dictatorship, a different one. If I accommodate myself to it, I can’t object to what he did.’”
Her father’s death from liver disease spurred her first book, Nadirs (1982). Its child’s-eye vignettes have a surreal poetry. It made her name in Germany in 1984, but led her extended family to sever contact with her. In The Passport (1986), her first novel to appear in English, a drunken miller, whose wife was brutalised in Russia, pines for the fuhrer, as villagers betray neighbours for exit papers. Romania, she says, falsified its Nazi history, scapegoating its ethnic Germans. Yet this injustice does not deter her from exposing their faults: wife-beating, corruption, bigotry against Jews, gypsies and Romanians termed “Wallachians”.
“Suffering doesn’t improve human beings, does it?” she says. “This village standing still in time, the isolation and ethnocentricity of the German minority over 300 years, that doesn’t disappear just because a large part of this population was deported.”
Her best friend, among many others, spied on her – as happens to the garment factory worker in The Appointment (1997), who is caught sewing marriage proposals into suits for export to Italy. Mueller applied to emigrate on political grounds with her then husband, a writer named Richard Wagner. But the only forms available were for family reunion.
After 18 months of “chicanery”, her emigration date was given as February 29, 1987, “which didn’t exist. I had masses of problems with the German authorities. The West Germans then asked, ‘Are you politically persecuted or are you an ethnic German?’ I said, ‘Both.’ They said, ‘We don’t have a form for that.’”
Though she now finds it hilarious, back then, “I cried. It was an endless drag.”
When the 1989 revolution toppled Ceausescu, “I thought, ‘I’ll live longer than him now.’” Yet after his summary trial and Christmas Day execution, “I cried all that day, partly maybe with relief, but you can’t watch somebody being shot. Even though I might have wished for that for 20 years, I didn’t really want to see it.”
After years of demanding access to her Securitate file, it was released, heavily redacted, in 2009. “There are hundreds of pages of telephone transcripts. I couldn’t have imagined I was so important to them.
Nobody lived in the flat below me. It was a listening centre, with microphones threaded up through the floor.”
It also came to light, after The Hunger Angel was published, that Pastior had been recruited as a spy in Bucharest in 1961. After initial shock and anger, her sympathy for him deepened.
“His few reports are devoid of content. He tried everything not to get anyone into trouble. It was all because of six poems he wrote about the camp that were found in the 50s and seen as anti-Soviet. He couldn’t cope with prison for 20 years.”
The Securitate is still in service, Mueller says: “Forty per cent of the old staff were taken over by the new Romanian Information Service. The rest are all millionaires through privatisation grabs.”
In her view, the European Union, which Romania joined in 2007, is culpably ineffectual against the half-democracies of the former Eastern bloc. Romania’s “Communist Party gave itself new labels – they’re [the ruling] Social Democrats now. The country is rolling backwards – they’re Stalinists.”
As for the personal betrayals, is it ever possible to trust again?
“I know it wasn’t everyone,” she says after a pause. “You learn perspective. If you live with death threats, you need friends. So you have to risk that they might spy on you.”
It seems trust – like laughter – is an act of resistance.
Guardian News & Media
Mo comment Mo Yan may have been described as being "like a prostitute insisting her services are clean", by dissident poet Ye Du after the literature prize winner delivered his Nobel lecture in Stockholm last Friday, but the author does have his fair share of supporters. Some of them, such as Taiwan's Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai, seem unlikely allies.
"In 2000, I invited Mo Yan to be the writer-in-residence of Taipei," says Lung, who was in the SAR recently to give a speech at the University of Hong Kong. Lung, a renowned writer in her own right, was, in 2000, the director of Taipei's Cultural Bureau.
"I was primarily impressed by his writing, such as his early opus Red Sorghum, and his shorter works like The Transparent Carrot, and his latest work Fatigue in Life and Death, which is very good.
"The art of language in his writing has the authentic and original power of earth, and has character, too, and that's what appealed to me most.
"I never thought and I still don't think that he's a so-called 'red writer'. If one says that, that means he's not properly understood.
"As I understand it, when you label someone a red writer, that means all his writings are trying to butter up the [Communist] Party and serve as propaganda. Under that definition, I don't think he is."
The 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mo Yan receives flowers and applause from members of the academy during the Nobel lecture in Stockholm, Sweden, last Friday. Photo: Reuters