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Some Romanians claim Herta Mueller as their own

The Nobel Prize in Literature laureate wrote from Germany about Romania's suffering under communism.

Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller, center, is congratulated after she received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature following the ceremony in Stockhom, Dec. 10, 2009. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

BUCHAREST, Romania — When German writer Herta Mueller appeared in Stockholm Thursday to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Romanians were debating how much the award meant to their country.

“We have a reason to be proud,” host Andreea Esca said when presenting primetime news on the commercial Pro TV channel.

Readers of Mueller’s work, such as economist Roxana Puscas, agreed. “Even if Mueller lives in Germany and writes in German, her books describe in detail her experiences in Romania and life here in general. So of course we, as a nation, feel in the spotlight,” she said.

Others believe that Romania has nothing to do with this prize. “Until this fall she was virtually unknown here, so it’s unfair for us to start bragging about ‘our writer,’” said teacher George Marin.

Born in 1953 to a farmer’s family of German ethnicity close to Romania’s border near then-Yugoslavia, Mueller only learned Romanian at the age of 15, when she arrived in the large city Timisoara for school. After earning her university degree in languages, she became closely involved with Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German-speaking writers in Romania who stood for freedom of speech against the censorship of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial regime. When a heavily censored version of her first book was published in Romania in 1982, Mueller stealthily sent the original manuscript to West Germany, where it was published unedited. After that, she was banned from ever being published in Romania again.

While working as a translator in a factory and then a kindergarten teacher, Mueller was constantly harassed by the state secret police, called the Securitate. She eventually left for West Berlin in 1987 — as Romanians of German ethnicity were allowed to do — where she continued writing about the abuses she and many others had suffered in communist Romania.

A central storyline in her novels, short stories, poems and essays follows the frequent run-ins with Securitate officers and investigators, who would instill fear either by confronting people directly or by entering their houses when they were away and “rearranging” their furniture and belongings. Mueller also vividly describes the working environment in communist factories and everyday life in poverty-stricken Romania, where even basic foods had become a luxury by the late 1980s.

“Confronting death, I became thirsty for life, thirsty for words. My inner state could only be expressed by the spinning words,” Mueller said this week in Stockholm, during the traditional lecture before the award ceremony.

She also repeatedly expressed her attachment to the Romanian language — in which she wrote only one book, of poetry, in 2005 — and said she holds some dear memories of the country, but not of the state. After the communist regime was toppled in 1989, Mueller remained a fierce critic of the way things are done in Romania, steadfastly condemning the fact that former Securitate and Communist Party heavyweights are prominent figures in today’s politics and business.