When Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009 the Nobel Foundation praised her for her power to depict “the landscape of the dispossessed.” Considering the role the Nobel Prize plays in the formation of a canon of world literature, it is perhaps not surprising that the Foundation would use a metaphor implying general significance. Nor is the metaphor inappropriate. Müller’s prose narratives and collage poetry indeed depict a world in which the individual has been deprived not only of personal liberty and political rights, but also history, homeland, and even language. Yet the general relevance of the theme of dispossession in a world of upheavals notwithstanding, the landscape (literal and figurative) of Müller’s works is distinctly Central European. The displacements she has endured, whether as the child of a stiflingly conservative community, a member of a persecuted linguistic minority, a citizen of a repressive dictatorship, or a political refugee in the West, represent personal experiences of the cultural and political ruptures that shaped the history of the region over the course of the 20th century.

Herta Müller was born in 1953 in Niţchidorf, or Nitzkydorf by its German name, a small village in Banat, a geographical region in Central Europe that straddles the borders of Romania, Serbia, and Hungary, (though most of Banat falls in Romania). Before the First World War, Banat had been home to several different linguistic groups, primarily speakers of Romanian, Hungarian, German and Serbian. Following the incorporation of most of Banat into Romania after the war the region maintained its multilingual character, but during and after the Second World War the demographics changed significantly. According to statistics compiled by Árpád E. Varga of the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in the interwar period there were some 500,000 German speakers living in Western Romania, but by 1948 this number had fallen to 300,000, and it continued to drop over the next several decades, particularly with the rise to power of Nicolae Ceauşescu and the practice of the Romanian government of letting German speakers emigrate to Germany in exchange for hard currency. By the time the first free elections were held in 1992 there were barely 100,000 German speakers still living in Romania.

As a member of the German speaking minority of Romania, Müller’s first experience of displacement came when she began to confront the image of the village of her birth as a harmonious community united by shared traditions. When she moved at fifteen years of age to Timişoara (Temesvár in Hungarian, Temeschburg in German), the largest city of the region, she was compelled to begin leading her day-to-day life in Romanian. Distanced by this shift from the language of her childhood, she began to reflect on the customs and culture of the village in which she had been born and found herself increasingly estranged from her own mother tongue. As she commented in an interview in 1984 (published with the title “Und ist der Ort”), she looked back on her childhood and found that it had been “speechless” (“sprachlos”).

The language with which she had grown up came to seem a repository for the collective memories on which the unity of the community was based and a tool through which to exact tribute to these memories. As she began to explore the language she had grown up with, she realized that behind the references to tradition and heritage lay a more recent past. In her essays she comments on the frequent use of the word “Heimat” (homeland), for instance in a drinking song: “Nach meiner Heimat, da zieht’s mich wieder / Es ist die alte Heimat noch” (To my homeland I again am drawn / It is yet the old homeland). The invocation of homeland, she comments, expressed a yearning not for another place, but for another time, the war, when the vast majority of the men, including her father, had been members of the SS. With this realization her understanding of the community of her birth forever changed, as did her perception of her place within it and her identity as a member of the German speaking minority. “I suddenly came to stand outside,” she later wrote in an essay entitled “Wie Wahrnehmung sich erfindet,” “and I wanted to stand outside. […] I could not bear the folk festivals and the glossiness of the black boots.”

Müller’s first collection of stories, Niederungen (published in Romania in 1982 in a censored version, then by Rotbuch Verlag in an uncensored version in 1984 and in English translation as Nadirs in 1999), is an unforgiving attack on the falseness of the idyllic image of the village as a unified community. Told for the most part in the present tense from the perspective of a young girl, the stories reveal an underside of domestic violence, alcoholism, corruption, and refusal to come to terms with the past. Descriptions rendered with austere simplicity mingle with the nightmarish visions of a child’s troubled mind, merging the dull and everyday with the fantastic.

In The Funeral Sermon, the first story in the collection, the narrator recounts a dream she has had of her father’s funeral. Standing over his coffin, the people of the village accuse him of blackmail, adultery, murder, and rape. They then signal to her that she should give a speech in his memory. When she is unable to bring herself to words, they turn on her and pronounce judgment: “We are proud of our community. […] We will not let ourselves be insulted. […] In the name of our German community you are condemned to death.” By failing to perform a ritual expression of respect for the past, the narrator fails to affirm her willingness to ignore her father’s crimes. She thereby threatens the conspiracy of silence on which the false image of the community depends, and must be sentenced to death. Müller’s insight into the psychology of denial proved prescient, for after the publication of Niederungen she herself suffered denunciation by the people of Niţchidorf for “Nestbeschmutzung,” or befouling the nest. People spat at her in the streets and ostracized her and her family.

As a site of oppressive conformism the Swabian village remains present in much of the rest of Müller’s fiction, but the focus in her later work shifts in general to the persecution she endured at the hands of the communist dictatorship in Romania and the numerous displacements she suffered as an enemy of the state. Perhaps the most autobiographical of her novels, Herztier (published in German in 1994 and in English translation as The Land of Green Plums in 1996) tells the story of a young woman who leaves the village of her birth to attend university in Timişoara, where she becomes part of a small circle of Banat Swabian writers who share her sentiments of alienation from the German speaking minority communities but are equally alarmed by the nationalist policies of the communist state under Ceauşescu. Having completed their studies, she and her friends are deliberately separated from one another by the authorities, who assign them jobs in different parts of the country. They are subjected to increasingly brutal harassment and eventually decide to flee for Germany.

The circle of writers of which the protagonist becomes a part is based on the Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group that promoted literature of social and political engagement and included Müller’s husband Richard Wagner, a fellow Banat Swabian, among its founding members. Other characters of the novel seem to be based on members of the Aktionsgruppe Banat. Kurt, who dies amidst mysterious circumstances, could be identified with Roland Kirsch, a friend of Müller whose death in Romania in 1989 remains unexplained, and Georg, who is found dead on the street beneath his window soon after his emigration to Germany, could be identified as Müller’s friend and fellow writer Rolf Bossert, who suffered a similar fate. Bossert’s death was pronounced suicide, but Müller always suspected he was murdered by agents of the regime in Romania.

Published in 1989, two years after Müller’s emigration to Germany, Reisende auf einem Bein (translated as Travelling on One Leg) is exceptional among her longer prose narratives as the only novel set in the West. It tells the story of Irene, a woman who leaves a country in the east referred to only as “the other country” for Germany. Though her mother tongue is German, she nonetheless remains an outsider in Germany, set apart both by her dialect and her hesitance to think of herself as part of the German cultural nation, in part because of her negative experiences of nationalism in the country of her birth. As the story of a so-called Aussiedler (a term that has come to refer to Germans who, as emigrants or the descendants of emigrants to the east, sought to return to Germany during and immediately after the Cold War), Travelling on One Leg exposes the ambiguities of the word German, which can be used as an adjective to refer to citizenship or cultural affiliation and a noun to designate a single language with numerous (sometimes mutually incomprehensible) variants. As an Aussiedler, Irene is guaranteed German citizenship, much as Müller was, but her arrival in Germany is by no means a homecoming and she is by no means seen as a German. Like Müller, she remains a stranger in a strange land, expected by those around her to drop her distinctive dialect and customs and assimilate to the culture of her adopted country. Irene’s trauma (and Müller’s) calls to mind an observation made by Peter Paul Nahm, state secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Displaced persons, Refugees, and War Victims (Bundesministerium für Vertriebene, Flüchtlinge und Kriegsgeschädigte) in an essay entitled “Der Wille zur Eingliederung und seine Förderung” (The will to integration and its promotion). Nahm noted that the assumption that better economic prospects are adequate compensation for the cultural losses endured by those who have left countries in the East to settle in the West is “a fallacy born out of a purely materialistic outlook on life.” While Nahm made this comment in an essay published over fifty years ago, its relevance in the case of Herta Müller and the waves of “Aussiedler” who left Romania in the late 1980s and early 1990s is obvious, as is its relevance in the case of Romanian citizens seeking work in Hungary today and Hungarian citizens planning to pursue their careers in the more prosperous countries of the European Union.

In 1993 Müller published Der Wächter nimmt sein Kamm (The Guard takes his Comb), collage poems collected as a box set of postcards. This was followed by the publication of Im Haarknoten wohnt eine Dame (In the Topknots Lives a Lady) in 2000, Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen (The Pale Men with the Mocha Cups) in 2005, and a Romanian language collection entitled Este sau nu este Ion (It is or is not John) in 2005.

As a genre, collage poetry offers visual depictions of the notion that language never originates with the author, but rather is always the borrowed property of contested cultures. If part of the dispossession Müller has suffered has been the loss of agency that comes with the compulsion to speak through the voice of culture, collage allows her to visually stage her gestures of appropriation, reminding readers that the words themselves may not have originated with her, but the gesture of severing them from context does. What emerges is the figure of an author attempting to appropriate language for herself, resist its concentric tendencies, and invest it with individual intention. For instance, in the German collage poem included here the word “Heimweh,” “homesickness” or “home-pain,” is severed by a shift in font and colour, indicating that the two parts of the compound word have been taken from different sources. This dislocation arrests the reading process, and in the brief moment of pause one is reminded that the compound word is a neatly contained narrative of loss and envisioned return. In Müller’s case, this narrative is disrupted and brought to a halt, for there never was any home to which to return. In her Romanian language collection, itself a further indication of Müller’s displacement between countries, cultures, and languages, Müller uses similar ruptures to express sentiments of dislocation. For example, in the poem included here the line “A şasea gară e-o altă ţăra (indiferent care o fi ea)” (the sixth station is another country (no matter which it might be)) contains a phrase (“ţăra (indiferent care o fi ea)”) that consists of a single cut-out, unlike every other word in the poem. For one exceptional moment, the poem reads as the flowing voice of an author confident in the irrelevance of place.

Looking back on the literary culture of Central Europe in the 20th century, whether one is speaking of literary criticism and such figures as René Wellek or Tzvetan Todorov or imaginative literature and writers like Milan Kundera, Imre Kertész, or Herta Müller, the literature of the region has to a large extent been a literature of dispossession and dislocatoin. It is possible that with the fall of communism and the gradual dissolution of many of the previously impermeable borders in Central Europe the themes of exile and displacement have lost some of their pertinence. The work of Herta Müller, however, reminds us that the one-time impermeable political borders to some extent remain a cultural reality, and the individual narratives of displacement to which they gave rise remain part not only of the cultural past of the region, but also its cultural present.

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