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Herta Müller reflects on her path to the Nobel prize in literature

Born and raised in Romania, the writer says the Ceausescu regime had a profound effect on her books.

October 09, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

Herta Muller appeared overwhelmed as she was escorted Thursday into the headquarters of the Trade Assn. of German Publishing in central Berlin, her first public appearance after winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Muller, 56, took a few seconds to compose herself before a crowd of journalists, then said, "I didn't expect it. . . . I still can't speak about it, it's still too early and I think I need some time to order it in my mind."

An ethnic German born and raised in Romania, Muller has made the trials of life under the brutal Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu -- which ended with his overthrow and execution 20 years ago -- the focus of her work. In giving thanks for the award, she spoke of the way Ceausescu's regime has shaped her fiction.

"It's the topic of all my books," said Muller, who immigrated to Germany in 1987. "I believe that literature always goes precisely there where the damage to a person has been done. . . . I didn't choose this topic, it was thrust upon me."

Although Muller, a novelist, short story writer and occasional poet, is not widely known in the U.S., she was thought to be among the top contenders for the award, along with Israel's Amos Oz and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa.

And yet, there was speculation that the Nobel committee would steer clear of another European winner, especially after Peter Englund, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy and the most prominent member of the prize jury, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the Nobel had become too "Eurocentric."

"In most language areas," Englund said, "there are authors that really deserve and could get the Nobel Prize and that goes for the United States and the Americas, as well."

Last year, the Nobel committee provoked a bit of a controversy when then-Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl declared American literary culture "too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature." The 2008 prize went to French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, a writer with virtually no public profile in the United States.

Muller is no household name either; although she's the author of 19 books, only four -- most recently 2001's "The Appointment" -- have been published in the U.S. (Her publisher said that after the award was announced a flurry of offers for worldwide English rights to her books had been received).

"We've received three offers for the worldwide English rights and a fourth one is on the way," Friderike Barakat, foreign rights director at Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co., KG, the Munich-based publisher, said in an interview, declining to say from whom and on what terms. "I'm sure we'll receive more."

Muller comes to the award with a certain moral and political authority; as a translator in a Romanian factory, she was fired for not cooperating with the secret police, and in the 1970s she was a member of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of dissident writers that opposed the Ceausescu regime.

She published her first book in 1982, a collection of short stories depicting the difficulties of living in a small village like her own. It was censored by Romanian authorities, but an uncensored version was smuggled into Germany, where it found critical acclaim.

After a second book, she was prohibited from publishing in Romania, leading to her immigration to Germany.

In its citation, the Nobel committee wrote that Muller, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed."

"She has many important things to say about the relationship between East and West, about how bad it was in Romania under the Communist regime," said Dr. Wolfgang Nehring, professor of German at UCLA.

Still, even among his colleagues, her work has not been widely read.

"Although she writes about simple things," Nehring said, "she has a literary style that is difficult for many readers."

Muller will receive a medal and $1.4 million at a ceremony in December.



Special correspondent Kate Connolly contributed to this report from Berlin.

Bloomberg News also contributed to this report.




Some of Muller's translated books

Here is a selection of books by the newest Nobel laureate in literature, Herta Muller, available to English readers:


(translated by Sieglinde Lug) University of Nebraska Press, 1999


(translated by Martin Chalmers) Serpent's Tail, 1989, reissue planned for Oct. 19


(translated by Valentina Glajar and Andre LeFevere) Northwestern University Press, 1998


(translated by Michael Hofmann) Northwestern University Press, 1998


(translated by Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse) Metropolitan Books, 2001, being reissued by Picador on Oct. 23


Muller's most recent novel has an English working title, but has not been published outside Germany.

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