Herta Mller (born 17 August 1953) is a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature . Born in Nichidorf, Timi County in Romania, her native language is German. Since the early 1990s she has been internationally established, and her works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Mller is noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of the Socialist Republic of Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceauescu regime which she has experienced herself. Many of her works are told from the viewpoint of the German minority in Romania and are also a depiction of the modern history of the Germans in the Banat and Transylvania. Her much acclaimed 2009 novel The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel) portrays the deportation of Romania’s German minority to Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania for use as German forced labor.
Mller has received more than twenty awards to date, including the Kleist Prize (1994), the Aristeion Prize (1995), the International Dublin Literary Award (1998) and the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award (2009). On 8 October 2009, the Swedish Academy announced that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, describing her as a woman “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”.
Mller was born to Banat Swabian Catholic farmers in Nichidorf (German: Nitzkydorf), up to the 1980s a German-speaking village in the Romanian Banat in western Romania. Her family was part of Romania’s German minority. Her grandfather had been a wealthy farmer and merchant, but his property was confiscated by the Communist regime. Her father was a member of the Waffen SS during World War II, and earned a living as a truck driver in Communist Romania. In 1945 her mother, then aged 17, was among 100,000 of the German minority deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union, from which she was released in 1950. Mller’s native language is German; she learned Romanian only in grammar school. She graduated from Nikolaus Lenau High School before becoming student of German studies and Romanian literature at West University of Timioara.
In 1976, Mller began working as a translator for an engineering factory, but was dismissed in 1979 for her refusal to cooperate with the Securitate, the Communist regime’s secret police. After her dismissal she initially earned a living by teaching kindergarten and giving private German lessons.
Mller’s first book, Niederungen (Nadirs), was published in Romania in German in 1982, in a state-censored version. The book was about a child’s view of the German-cultural Banat. Some members of the Banat Swabian community criticized Mller for “fouling her own nest” by her unsympathetic portrayal of village life. Mller was a member of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German-speaking writers in Romania who supported freedom of speech over the censorship they faced under Nicolae Ceauescu‘s government, and her works, including The Land of Green Plums, deal with these issues. Radu Tinu, the Securitate officer in charge of her case, denies that she ever suffered any persecutions, a claim that is opposed by Mller’s own version of her (ongoing) persecution in an article in the German weekly Die Zeit in July 2009.
After being refused permission to emigrate to West Germany in 1985, Mller was finally allowed to leave along with her then-husband, novelist Richard Wagner, in 1987, and they settled in West Berlin, where both still live. In the following years she accepted lectureships at universities in Germany and abroad. Mller was elected to membership in the Deutsche Akademie fr Sprache und Dichtung in 1995, and other honorary positions followed. In 1997 she withdrew from the PEN centre of Germany in protest of its merger with the former German Democratic Republic branch. In July 2008, Mller sent a critical open letter to Horia-Roman Patapievici, president of the Romanian Cultural Institute in reaction to the moral and financial support given by the institute to two former informants of the Securitate participating at the Romanian-German Summer School.
The critic Denis Scheck described visiting Mller at her home in Berlin and seeing that her desk contained a drawer full of single letters cut from a newspaper she had entirely destroyed in the process. Realising that she used the letters to write texts, he felt he had “entered the workshop of a true poet”.
The Passport, first published in Germany as Der Mensch ist ein groer Fasan auf der Welt in 1986, is, according to The Times Literary Supplement, couched in the strange code engendered by repression: indecipherable because there is nothing specific to decipher, it is candid, but somehow beside the point, redolent of things unsaid. From odd observations the villagers sometimes make (Man is nothing but a pheasant in the world), to chapters titled after unimportant props (The Pot Hole, The Needle), everything points to a strategy of displaced meaning Every such incidence of misdirection is the whole book in miniature, for although Ceausescu is never mentioned, he is central to the story, and cannot be forgotten. The resulting sense that anything, indeed everything – whether spoken by the characters or described by the author – is potentially dense with tacit significance means this short novel expands in the mind to occupy an emotional space far beyond its size or the seeming simplicity of its story.”
In 2009, Mller enjoyed the greatest international success of her career. Her novel Atemschaukel (published in English The Hunger Angel) was nominated for the Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize) and won the Franz Werfel Human Rights Award. In this book, Mller describes the journey of a young man to a gulag in the Soviet Union, the fate of many Germans in Transylvania after World War II. It was inspired by the experience of poet Oskar Pastior, whose memories she had made notes of, and also by what happened to her own mother.
In October 2009, the Swedish Academy announced its decision to award that year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to Mller “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The academy compared Mller’s style and her use of German as a minority language with Franz Kafka and pointed out the influence of Kafka on Mller. The award coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism. Michael Krger, head of Mller’s publishing house, said: “By giving the award to Herta Mller, 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”
In 2012 Mller commented on the Nobel Prize for Mo Yan by saying that the Swedish Academy had apparently chosen an author who ‘celebrates censorship’.
Although Mller has revealed little about the specific people or books that have influenced her, she has acknowledged the importance of her university studies in German and Romanian literature, and particularly of the contrast between the two languages. “The two languages“, the writer says, “look differently even at plants. In Romanian, ‘snowdrops’ are ‘little tears’, in German they are ‘Schneeglckchen’, that is ‘little snow bells’, which means were not only speaking about different words, but about different worlds.” (However here she confuses snowdrops with lily-of-the-valley, the latter being called ‘little tears’ in Romanian.) She continues, “Romanians see a falling star and say that someone has died, with the Germans you make a wish when you see the falling star.” Romanian folk music is another influence: “When I first heard Maria Tnase she sounded incredible to me, it was for the first time that I really felt what folklore meant. Romanian folk music is connected to existence in a very meaningful way.“
Mller’s work was also shaped by the many experiences she shared with her ex-husband, the novelist and essayist Richard Wagner. Both grew up in Romania as members of the Banat Swabian ethnic group and enrolled in German and Romanian literary studies at Timioara University. Upon graduating, both worked as German-language teachers, and were members of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a literary society that fought for freedom of speech.
Mller’s involvement with Aktionsgruppe Banat gave her the courage to write boldly, despite the threats and trouble generated by the Romanian secret police. Although her books are fictional, they are based on real people and experiences. Her 1996 novel, The Land of Green Plums, was written after the deaths of two friends, in which Mller suspected the involvement of the secret police, and one of its characters was based on a close friend from Aktionsgruppe Banat.
Letter from Liu Xia
Herta Muller wrote foreword for the first publication of the poetry of Liu Xia, wife of the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, in 2015. Later, in 2014, Muller translated and read a few of Liu Xia poems. On 4 December 2017, a photo of the letter to Herta Muller from Liu Xia in a form of poem was posted on Facebook by Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu, where Liu Xia said that she was going mad in her solitary life.
- Niederungen, (short stories), censored version published in Bucharest, 1982. Uncensored version published in Germany 1984. (Published in English as Nadirs in 1999 by the University of Nebraska Press)
- Drckender Tango (“Oppressive Tango”), stories, Bucharest, 1984
- Der Mensch ist ein groer Fasan auf der Welt, Berlin, 1986. (Published in English as The Passport, Serpent’s Tail, 1989)
- Barfiger Februar (“Barefoot February”), Berlin, 1987
- Reisende auf einem Bein, Berlin, 1989. Published in English as Traveling on One Leg, Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press, 1998.
- Wie Wahrnehmung sich erfindet (“How Perception Invents Itself”), Paderborn, 1990
- Der Teufel sitzt im Spiegel (“The Devil is Sitting in the Mirror”), Berlin, 1991
- Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jger (published as “The Fox Was Ever the Hunter” in English), Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1992
- Eine warme Kartoffel ist ein warmes Bett (“A Warm Potato Is a Warm Bed”), Hamburg, 1992
- Der Wchter nimmt seinen Kamm (“The Guard Takes His Comb”), Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1993
- Angekommen wie nicht da (“Arrived As If Not There”), Lichtenfels, 1994
- Herztier, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1994. Published in an English translation by Michael Hofmann as The Land of Green Plums, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1996
- Hunger und Seide (“Hunger and Silk”), essays, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1995
- In der Falle (“In a Trap”), Gttingen 1996
- Heute wr ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1997. Published in English as The Appointment, Metropolitan Books/Picador, New York/London, 2001
- Der fremde Blick oder das Leben ist ein Furz in der Laterne (“The Foreign View, or Life Is a Fart in a Lantern”), Gttingen, 1999
- Heimat ist das, was gesprochen wird (“Home Is What Is Spoken There”), Blieskastel, 2001
- A Good Person Is Worth as Much as a Piece of Bread, foreword to Kent Klich‘s Children of Ceausescu, published by Journal, 2001 and Umbrage Editions, 2001.
- Der Knig verneigt sich und ttet (“The King Bows and Kills”), essays, Munich (and elsewhere), 2003
- Atemschaukel, Munich, 2009 (The Hunger Angel, Metropolitan Books, 2012)
- Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel, 2011
Lyrics/ Found Poetry
- Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame (“A Lady Lives in the Hair Knot”), Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2000
- Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen (“The Pale Gentlemen with their Espresso Cups”), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2005
- Este sau nu este Ion (“Is He or Isn’t He Ion”), collage-poetry written and published in Romanian, Iai, Polirom, 2005
- Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen (“Father is calling the Flies”), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2012
- Theodor Kramer: Die Wahrheit ist, man hat mir nichts getan (“The Truth Is No One Did Anything to Me”), Vienna 1999
- Die Handtasche (“The Purse”), Knzelsau 2001
- Wenn die Katze ein Pferd wre, knnte man durch die Bume reiten (“If the Cat Were a Horse, You Could Ride Through the Trees”), Knzelsau 2001