Herta Müller and The Nobel Prize

The part of Banat that's in Romania is shown on this map
The part of Banat that's in Romania is shown on this map

Though this blog is primarily dedicated to music, I want to clarify a few things about Herta Müller, who was today announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Some articles says she is a “Romanian-born German writer,” while others say she is a German writer (in reference to the language in which she writes).  The Times explains that she is from a German-speaking town in Romania.

Well that’s confusing! So here’s the thing: Müller is exempt from national identity proper, as she is part of a small group of people called the Banat-Swabians. I once did legitimate research on the topic, but now the only evidence I can find online is from wikipedia. The point is, Banat-Swabians are German speakers who migrated from German-speaking regions in Austria during the 18th Century to the Banat region of Romania.

Somehow, these German speakers held out in small groups, a leftover from times when all the maps of Eastern Europe were being drawn and redrawn by the Habsburgs, Russians and Ottomans. In some of Müller’s novels, this particular population is subject to special exploitation and misfortune during the Ceauşescu  regime. I say “special,” because all of Romania suffered under the excesses and misgovernance of its Communist leader.

Herta Müller is one difficult writer. Her prose is highly poetic, scattered with symbols and motifs (often in the form of colors and animals) and rarely tells a straightforward tale. I can’t speak to the nuances of her writing in German, but her strange and estranged prose was some of the most alienating and bleak I’ve come across, and leaves you with a sort of hollow pit at the center of your being. Delightful!

The novel I’m most familiar with, called The Passport in English, has no such straightforward title in German, as it’s called Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt. That means something like: “Man is a big pheasant on earth.” Interestingly, the French edition tried to keep Muller’s original meandering title, and it much more accurately conveys the obliqueness of her narrative style. I probably wouldn’t have known that The Passport was about obtaining an exit visa on my first reading had the English title been more akin to the German one.

Anyway! Hopefully Müller’s winning the prize will bring more light to post-Communist literatures of Eastern Europe as well as draw some attention to these little known populations in Romania. I know the Nobel committee often considers the political leanings as well as levels of obscurity of its prize-winners (in addition to literary considerations, one can only hope), and Müller certainly fits the bill in that way.

However, I’m still crossing my fingers for the day Philip Roth gets picked.

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3 thoughts on “Herta Müller and The Nobel Prize

  1. Since your blog is about music, let’s tie it back to that, even within this post 🙂 If you have a look at this article (http://www.infloox.com/influence?id=94fcba54 ), Muller says that she actually derives a LOT of her influences from Romanian folklore, and especially Romanian folk music due to its poetic lyricism. She also does a very nice comparison between German and Romanian language discrepancies to show how enormously differently even a single word can be translated from one to the other.

  2. Hi Patty, thanks for the link! I’d been wondering about her folk culture influences, since her stories are littered with roosters, pigs, and other animals who frequently appear in those kinds of tales. I am sure now that the lit crit on her in English will receive a welcome in-flux from her Nobel–but a year or so ago, when I was reading/researching her, I had a hard time finding English sources of criticism!

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