Friday 15 January 2010

Herta Müller - Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2009

Having just finished reading “Herztier”, Herta Müller’s most praised novel, in the original German, I was awed by her ability to create extra-ordinary verbal images by using simple German words and sentences.

This is not going to be a book review, however; I mention her novel only because reading it motivated me to find out more about Herta Müller. I found an interview with her on the official Nobel Prize website. For those of you who speak German, you can listen to it yourself.

For the rest of you, I am going to tell you about it, because she deeply moved me in her humanity and humility. She starts the interview by saying that she believes that literature cannot be ranked, cannot be marked or measured.
‘There are so many different varieties of literature. You can’t really compare them, in the end you can only choose between them. In this respect I was fortunate.’

She goes on to say that luck or fortune is not something that one can earn.
‘If you have known misfortune, you recognise fortune,’ Müller says. She has a way of detaching herself from what others would call her achievements. When asked what the Nobel Prize means for her, she answers,
‘The prize was given to my books’, as if she and her books were two completely different things. I like her for that statement because this is very much how I feel about my writing and my books. There is me, and I exist without the books, and there are the books independent of me, having their own voice, their own message.

All she will admit to is her pleasure that the topic of dictatorship is being given attention through her winning the prize. She stresses that there are still too many dictatorships around, be they left or right or theocratic. Whatever they are, they all have the same effect on the individual, namely its destruction.

When I first heard Müller speak in the interview I was slightly puzzled. She didn’t sound completely like a German native speaker. She grew up in a German-speaking village in the Romanian countryside. Her parents were German; her father had joined the SS at 17 and fought for Hitler like most of his Romanian contemporaries. After the war, when Romania changed allegiance to the Soviet Union, this part of the history was written out of the official version. Only the German minorities were suddenly the ex-Nazis. Later on in the interview Müller explains that German was her only language until the age of fifteen. They were taught Romanian at school as a foreign language but their teacher was a German himself whose Romanian wasn’t very good. I was fascinated when she said that her first foreign language was in fact Hochdeutsch, the written German taught at school, because at home they spoke a strong dialect. This was exactly my own situation growing up in Austria. My parents were working class who spoke the local dialect, and on my first day at school I was confused that the teacher was speaking to us in a strange way. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand her; rather I knew I couldn’t talk like that myself.

Müller learned Romanian when, aged fifteen, she went to live in the city to go to grammar school. She tells the interviewer how she loves the Romanian language, its idioms and poetry, how it is much closer to her emotional nature than the German, but that she could never have written her novels in Romanian. She just wasn’t confident enough. She admits though that knowing Romanian has enriched her German, because subconsciously there are two ways of looking at the world inside her head. She gives as an example the name for lily of the valley. In German it is called ‘little bell of May’, in Rumanian ‘little tear’.

When the interviewer talks about her beautiful German, Müller explains that in art we use the world beautiful when we are touched, although quite often what touches us is almost unbearably painful.

I have taken a different path from Müller and write in my second mother-tongue, English. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it lets me explore many things much freer and without baggage from the past. Besides that I never felt completely at home with Hochdeutsch. Although I had to use it at school and university, and it served me well to express intellectual concepts and ideas, when I wanted to talk about matters of the heart I didn’t feel comfortable talking in Hochdeutsch. Even before I married my English husband and moved to the UK, even before I spoke to my children in English, I preferred speaking English to speaking Hochdeutsch in certain situations. My husband, whose German is not very fluent, and who only knows Hochdeutsch, is always surprised how often it happens to him that Austrians switch to English, even when their English is no better than his German, as soon as he asks them to speak Hochdeutsch.

I wholeheartedly agree with Herta Müller when she says that it is an advantage to have more than one way of looking at the world in one’s head, no matter how subconscious it is. Recently I have spent a lot of time reading the Qur’an in Arabic. My knowledge of classical Arabic, a mostly passive one, as I was taught it at university as if it were a dead language, is good enough to understand the Qur’an, at least the first layer, the obvious meaning. I cannot claim to have knowledge of the 70,000 inner meanings of every verse. Sometimes images from the Qur’an suddenly come to the forefront when I try to figure something out. In recent weeks one verse has haunted me, where God says of the unbelievers,
‘We have put yokes round their necks, right up to their chins, so that they cannot bow their heads.
And We have put a bar in front of them and a bar behind them...’
(Sura 36,8-9)
Was it an arrogant banker that first triggered the image? Or Richard Dawkin? It was definitely somebody who annoyed me and whose behaviour angered me. Yet that image softened my heart. As soon as I saw them as enslaved by their own ignorance and lack of vision I almost felt pity. What a way to have to walk through life.

When Müller is asked whether she tried to forget her memories of Romania after she emigrated to Germany, she is emphatic that forgetting is not an option when your friends have been murdered or imprisoned or simply collapsed and became mentally ill under the strain and burden of living under the regime. However, she conceded, memories are always reorganised within a human being.
‘Writing tames memory,’ she insists. ‘In fact every kind of work that takes you out of your existence, that makes you forget (I think she means the past and the future, leaving only the present moment), tames memory.’ For her, and for me, that is writing.

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