Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

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