By Willa A. Cmiel
“But, who is she?” is the question asked about Herta Müller and her Nobel Prize in Literature. My own answer is, I don’t know; I’ve no idea. After all, I’m American! As Lev Grossman writes (for TIME), “She is a surprising choice to Americans too…but in a way it would have been a surprise if the choice had not been a surprise. In the past decade, about half of the Nobel laureates in literature have been writers of whom few readers in the U.S., academics and literary journalists included, had or have any real awareness.”
The fictional characters in her novels sit squarely on the ground of terrifyingly real events, her visual style of writing owes much to the Banatian dialect, the language of her parents, and the Romanian language, which was spoken by her friends in school, rather than any literary education…Herta Müller is extremely outspoken, but her target is not language itself. She asks the questions, tests the meanings, rejects connections imposed by logic. “How often,” she asks in her collection of essays “Hunger und Seide” (hunger and silk) “and carelessly do we use the word normal”?…She makes her readers aware of what words mean, and the cargo of meaning they drag with them. “I cannot,” she says in an interview, “just lock my head away, I have to keep thinking with it.”
Müller’s history is one which can’t be explained without such human rights catch phrases as “exile,” “censored,” “tyranny,” and “dispossessed.” Whether or not it’s true that her political background is more illuminating than her literary one (I don’t think it is), after last year’s debacle we should come to expect from the Nobel committee a fickle attitude toward art for art’s sake as well as a literary anti-Americanism. It’s their prize, not ours.
As an industry, American “letters” are quite busy exporting Dan Brown around the world. So much so that we forget or don’t bother to translate Müller’s Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger* or Le Clézio’s exalting, and still widely unavailable, short story “Celui qui n’avait jamais vu la mer.”** Müller has written nineteen books. Four have been translated into English, but up until a few days after her win none of them were available for immediate shipping on Amazon.
In Alfred Nobel’s will, one part was dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”(italics my own). Alfred Nobel was a humanitarian; he was an idealist. It’s fitting that judges favor writers with political bends as well as those who lose out on attention or translation in this country. It makes sense that Saramago, Coetzee, Pamuk, Lessing, Le Clézio, and now Müller would be chosen. The first fifty pages of Müller’s The Land of Green Plums can be read here, and they are pretty wondrous.
*Even Then, the Fox Was the Hunter
** “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” (subscription only)