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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.

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.