Herta Mueller first crept into my consciousness in 2009 when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A friend read one of her books at that time- I think it was Herztier- and told me she found it quite heavy going, dealing with the repressive Rumanian state apparatus under Communism and the terrible persecution of Securitate, the Rumanian secret police. Though interested in German women writers, I couldn’t quite face the subject matter at that time, but was pleased to have to step up to the plate just now when a friend chose a collection of essays by Herta Müller for her German book group choice.
So ‘der König’ is a collection of autobiographical essays, published in Germany in 2003 and as far as I know, not yet translated into English. The essays have different foci and approaches but all deal with language and identity, interwoven with stories from the author’s life. She was brought up in a German speaking village in the Banat region of Rumania until the age of 17 when she moved to the city for school. I enjoyed some of the anecdotes from village life: her grandfather travelling to the Hungarian village every Wednesday to play chess, the description of the carpenter’s workshop stuffed full of half finished projects, his dinner delivered each day by his wife and kept warm in the wooden coffin. But we’re not allowed to get too carried away by the folksy goings on of the villagers- just a few pages later we’re told that every single family member had been traumatised by war, the excesses of Nazism or the revenge of the Soviet system. The author’s mother was deported to a labour camp by the Russians for five years at the end of the war, where she experienced extreme hard labour and starvation. Her father joined the Waffen SS and later became an alcoholic. Her grandparents had their land and shop confiscated by the Communist state and then had to toil for a pittance on their own land.
At the age of 17 the author moves to the city and there are some fascinating observations of that transition- her impressions of the city, its architecture and residents who never stop talking. For some months she is a quiet observer- and in a Rumanian speaking world for the first time- but she suddenly begins to be able to speak the language and love its poetic qualities. At some point she begins to be critical of the authorities and we are told that the secret police, the Securitate, have it in for her after she refuses to be their informant at the factory where she works. Scenes of interrogations, house searches and reports of the killings of friends are interleaved into the narrative as well as accounts of the psychological terror induced by constant fear and death threats. This persecution goes on for the author even after she left Rumania in 1987 to come to Germany: a friend who has come to visit her in Berlin confesses to her that she is there on the orders of Securitate.
These scenes from the author’s life are wrapped up in her exploration of language and its relationship to reality. Herta Müller was born in a German speaking village where a German minority had lived for over 30o years. On the collapse of the Austro- Hungarian empire, the village became part of Rumania but was proud to retain its language, customs and sense of national identity, as did Hungarian villages nearby. So Herta Müller grew up speaking German dialect with her family, Hochdeutsch in her local school and Rumanian in the city. Her fascination with language spills over every page in this book. She loves the image laden Rumanian language and mocks the ugly utilitarian expressions invented in East Germany under communism : she sees the term ‘Erdmöbel’ ( furniture for the ground) as both refusing the comfort of a Christian resurrection and yet promising an afterlife of some kind in suggesting that the coffin will furnish our final resting place.
The author describes the way language is used to fuel nationalist positions : in Rumania her interrogators insist on her difference and inferiority as an ethnic German when they tell her not to forget she has been eating Rumanian bread. Yet when she arrives in Germany shopkeepers ask where she is from when they detect a different pronunciation, instruct her how to pronounce ‘Bretzel’ and begin every sentence ‘bei uns in Deutschland’- ‘ here in Germany we…..’ ( Ever since reading this I’ve been trying to think of a UK analogy and decided it would be like getting a Scot in London to pronounce ‘toast’ with those flat southern vowels, or a Londoner in Sheffield to reshape their lips for a bacon buttie. )
And the experience of terror under dictatorship can render the relationship between words and the objects they denote unstable. So ‘hair’ is loaded with sinister meaning for the author: her mother’s head was kept shaved for 5 years in the labour camp, she and her flatmate would place hairs over door handles when leaving the flat as a way of telling on their return if their flat had been searched. Her hair was bleached by her hairdresser and at the next interrogation the interrogator referred to her being blonde. It is as if words themselves contain and set off a state of terror in the author and this process is so well described that we feel ourselves to be at times on the brink of that terrifying world.
This collection has been an excellent way for me to dip a toe into the work of this unique and accomplished author- the accounts of interrogation and repression somewhat leavened by her acerbic and witty observations about language. I felt I learned a lot about the particular configuration of Communism in post war Rumania, with its personality cult of Ceausescu and the activities of the brutal secret police. I do recommend this collection to readers of German and look forward to seeing this book in English translation. Though communist Rumania no longer exists, there are unfortunately many brutal regimes elsewhere in the world using torture and terror to intimidate and destroy their people. As more and more people of these people seek refuge and asylum in Europe, it is vital that we try to gain insight into the ways they are marked by experiences of torture and repression. This collection will go some way to providing that insight.