The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 is . . . . Herta Müller. I confess. I do not know her work, had not heard of her prior to yesterday, but so far, the reviews indicate she is well worth knowing. The Swedish Academy said of her: “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”
Born in Romania in 1953, in the German-speaking town of Niţchidorf, Herta’s family was a part of the German minority, and they carried some heavy baggage for her. Her father served in the Waffen SS, and her mother survived five years of slave labor in the Soviet Union, from 1944-1949. Her family lived under the dictatorial rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which is the subject of much of her writing. She and her husband, the writer Richard Wagner, left Romania for Germany in 1987.
She is still being forced to fight old battles. In an article published in Sign and Sight, she says:
Romanian intellectuals were as uninterested in seeing the secret files opened as they were in all the crushed lives around them, or in the new arrangements of the party’s top brass and secret service officers. If, like me, you have publicly demanded access to files year in year out, you start to get on the nerves even of your friends. This was another reason why, for years, the Securitate files were not in the hands of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (the tongue-twistingly named CNSAS), which was grudgingly set up in 1999 at the instigation of the EU, but with the new-old secret service. They controlled all access to files. The CNSAS had to submit applications to them; sometimes they were granted, but mostly they were refused, even for the grounds: The file applied for is still being worked on. In 2004 I was in Bucharest in order to lend weight to my repeated application for file access. At the entrance to the CNSAS I was puzzled to find three young women in mini-dresses with plunging necklines and shiny neon tights, as if this were some erotic centre. And between the women stood a soldier, a machine-gun slung over his shoulder, as if this were a military barracks. The head of CNSAS pretended not to be there, even though I had an appointment with him.
Observer, observed, actor, acted upon. Some writers live what they write about, and imagine more — much more. Others remain outside that experience, and put themselves inside it through the miracle of imagination. The job of the artist is to focus a talent we all share and we all use. Walking in the shoes of others. Walking with them, and walking as another being entirely. The careful, thoughtful, colorful expression of what we learn along the way is among the best things we humans do.