Arts, Culture & Media

German author wins Nobel prize for literature

Story by Jeb Sharp, PRI's "The World"

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Romanian-born German writer, Herta Müller, has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Müller grew up in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolai Ceausescu and in the shadow of World War II. She later emigrated to West Germany. Her work reflects those experiences depicting what the Nobel committee called the landscape of the dispossessed.

You may not have heard of Herta Müller but she’s well known in the German speaking world. Her life and writing span many of the most terrifying experiences in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of what makes her so interesting is that she’s German but not German. She grew up a member of Romania’s ethnic German minority.

"She writes in German, but she always says that her writing is very influenced by the Romanian language in way more poetic, and has lots of lovely metaphors which she incorporates into German," says Brigid Haines, head of modern languages at Swansea University in the UK.

"Her father was an SS officer and that’s something that’s always disturbed her because she never quite knew what he did in the war. So she had to deal with the legacy of the German guilt. But at the same time she was growing up in a totalitarian regime."

And not just any totalitarian regime but that of the hard line Nicolai Ceausescu. Not surprisingly one of Müller’s big themes is dictatorship. By the time she was a student she was in trouble with the authorities as an intellectual and dissenter. Later she was fired from her job as a translator because she refused to collaborate with the Romanian secret police.

Müller draws continually on her life in Romania in her writing says Haines.  "This is an experience that she can’t leave behind. It’s taken hold of her and she writes extraordinarily well about it."

Haines got to know Müller a few years ago when she was a writer in residence at Swansea. She says she was great with the students especially in bringing to life what it was like to leave Romania and come to the west -- in her case Berlin in the late 1980s.

"One of her books was reviewed in "Die Zeit," a German weekly newspaper, and she wanted copies of this review. And so she went out and bought 20 copies of "Die Zeit." What she didn’t know was that you can photocopy in the west. Because in her experience the only photocopiers in the country, in Romania, were owned by the secret police. She’s a very good ambassador for keeping alive the sense of horror and terror and the lasting trauma of dictatorship."

What sets Müller apart is her use of language. She writes novels, essays, poems, and even creates collages out of words and pictures. Poetic is the word that comes up most to describe even her prose. Lyn Marven of the University of Liverpool says her German is infused with Romanian imagery.

"The novel that was translated as "The Passport" is actually called "Humans are a Pheasant in the World." And the pheasant in German, she says the pheasant is...well you can picture a pheasant. You know it’s proud. It struts its stuff. It walks in front of cars on the road. It rules the place. But in fact in Romanian the pheasant is a loser. And so it’s one that can’t get off the ground. And that, the dual language, you know the two different backgrounds and that to me seemed very striking. That on the one hand you’ve got this beautiful bird but on the other hand it can’t fly."

Marven says Müller often draws her metaphors from nature and the countryside. Her best known work in English is "The Land of Green Plums."

"The Land of Green Plums uses the image of the unripe plums as something that makes her feel sick. It might even be dangerous. And that’s a metaphor for the knowledge that’s inside her about her father’s past."

Marven and other fans are celebrating Müller’s prize despite a bit of grumbling that the Nobel literature committee is too Eurocentric.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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