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.
Conversely, writers and critics here have been trying to establish Mueller’s place in Romanian literature. A debate ensued when the Nobel Prize Committee announced her as a winner two months ago, citing her special ability to depict “the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Nicolae Manolescu, the president of the Writers’ Union, said that Mueller has not received the attention she deserves here, but he is against those who say that Romania has no claim whatsoever to Mueller’s success. Pondering a long list of leading Romanian writers who never received the Nobel Prize, opinion commentator Cristian Tudor Popescu said he believes that Mueller would have never received hers had she not left for Germany and continued writing in German. Meanwhile, literary critic Marius Chivu pointed out that Mueller will always have to fight skeptics’ doubts that the prize was awarded mostly to commemorate the 1989 events in Europe rather than for intrinsic literary value.
Despite winning several prizes abroad in the 1990s, Mueller never became a popular writer in post-communist Romania, where only a handful of her books have been translated. Silviu Lupescu, the director of Polirom publishing house, which carries three Mueller titles, said she has been known here as a dissident rather than a writer. After putting her books on sale at the price of 1 euro a piece for a long time, Polirom has now seen a surge in demand and has reprinted several thousand copies, which now sell for about 6 euros each.
Humanitas, another leading publishing house, which since 1990 has brought to the Romanian public the works of many authors censored or banned during the communist regime, published its first Mueller book just three weeks ago. “Even Then the Fox Was the Hunter” sold more than 1,500 copies in five days at the Gaudeamus Book Fair at the end of November, being declared “the most wanted book.” 13,000 copies are available in bookstores nationwide.
With the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Romania approaching — the regime was toppled Dec. 22, 1989 — Romanians have been analyzing their lives before and after, some with the help of Mueller’s books. Puscas, who is reading her first book by Mueller, “The King Bows and Kills,” said she is rethinking everything in the context of her country’s communist past.
“It feels like all we do these days is complain about everything,” she said. “We should instead be grateful that we’ve come such a long way since those horrific times. Reading this book reminds me so intensely of how miserable and full of fear our lives used to be.”
Mueller is the third person born in Romania to receive a Nobel Prize, after Elie Wiesel and George Emil Palade won distinctions for Peace and Medicine, respectively, as American citizens.