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Herta Müller takes the Nobel prize for literature

By / October 8, 2009



On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the choice of Herta Müller as 106th winner of the Nobel prize for literature seems particularly appropriate. After all, this is an author whose life was shaped by decades of struggle against Eastern European dictatorship.

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Müller, the 12th woman to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature, is a novelist, poet, and essayist known for her works illuminating the harsh conditions of life in Communist Romania. The Nobel judges praised Müller for depicting the "landscape of the dispossessed" with "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose."

Müller is a courageous figure whose own life has much in common with that of her fictional works. She was born in Romania in 1953 into a family that made up part of Romania's German-speaking minority. She studied German and Romanian literature at the University of Timisoara, where she became part of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of idealistic Romanian-German writers opposed to the repressive Ceaucescu dictatorship.

In the 1970s she began working as a translator for a tractor company but was fired a few years into the job for her refusal to cooperate with the Romanian secret police. She went on to become a teacher and to publish two works of fiction which offered critical portrayals of life in Romania. In particular, Müller focused on the hypocrisy and oppression which she found to be part and parcel of life in a fascist regime.

In the 1980s she traveled to the Frankfurt book fair, where she spoke publicly against the Romanian dictatorship. She was later forbidden to publish in Romania. Eventually,  she felt herself to be imperiled in Romania and so in 1987 she emigrated to the West. She and her husband have lived in Berlin ever since, but her criticism of Eastern European dictatorship did not cease when she left Romania. She continued to speak out against East German writers who collaborated with the secret police and, more recently, when the German branch of P.E.N. voted to merge with its former East German counterpart, she withdrew her membership in protest.

A text by Beverly Driver Eddy on Dickinson College's website reflects on the close ties between Müller's work and her life. Eddy points out that in addition to highlighting the corruption and suffering within Romania, her works after 1987 also portray the problems of resettlement in the west, and the feelings of alienation that plague the political exile.

For those looking for classic Müller, however, Peter Englund, permanent secretary of Nobel Academy, suggests picking up  her novel "Herztier" (published in English as "The Land of Green Plums"), which focuses on five Romanian youths and their lives under the Ceausescu regime. The green plums are the fruit that the greedy policeman steal unripe from city trees.

Müller's subject matter is often bleak. But her fans say that it is the beauty of her language and the sharp contrast it creates with the conditions she describes that give Müller's works their power – and that now have won her this top honor in the world of literature.

The prize includes a 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prize which will be awarded in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

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