Voice of the Dispossessed

The 2009 Nobel Prize winner for literature is well placed to describe the trials of Eastern European minorities through the maelstrom of the 20th century, writes Markus Bauer.

When the Nobel Prize Committee awarded its prize for literature to the Romanian-born German author Herta Müller in October 2009, it was not only the New York Times who asked: ‘Herta who?’ The shy woman was little known outside literary circles.

Müller’s life story has produced a  remarkable creative output from the ruptures between east and west Europe in the final decades of the last century. Born in 1953 in a German minority community in a village on the Hungarian-Romanian border, Müller’s father was a member of the Waffen SS, while after the war her mother had been held in a Soviet work camp for five years. After protesting against the lack of freedom of speech under Nicolae Ceaucescu’s regime at university, she lost her job as a translator in an engineering plant in the 1970s because she refused to cooperate with the secret police, the Securitate.

She joined a radical writers’ collective of young German language authors and her first book, Niederungen (Nadir), censored in Romania, was published in its full form in Germany in 1984. Niederungen, an autobiographical collection of short stories, describes a Schwaben (Swabian) child’s impressions in a  village in the border landscape of the Banat, a region once part of the Habsburg territories that today lies within Romania, Serbia and Hungary. Müller eventually emigrated to Berlin in 1987 with her ex-husband, the writer Richard Wagner, to escape persecution by the Securitate. Further powerful novels on the subject of living in a dictatorship won fame and critical approval.

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