Friday, October 9, 2009

Herta Müller has won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature

As I did last year, when French author Le Clézio won the Prize, I scratched my head and said: “Uh?”. While all the world is congratulating the President of the United States of America for being awarded, quite unexpectedly, the Nobel Prize for Peace, yet another time the Nobel Prize for Literature has been won by a not-exactly-well-known author, Herta Müller.

So I read something about her life and works and surfed the web for some reactions to the prize. Here’s what I found out:

Herta Müller is a Romanian-born German novelist, only the 12th woman to win the prize in 108 years. Some people have ironically noticed that she fits into the criteria chosen by the Nobel Prize judges: she comes from a bicultural/ethnic minority background and she often writes about hard life in a totalitarian regime. Many think that recently the Nobel Prize for Literature seems to put political considerations ahead of literary merit. The criticism comes from the observation that many recent laureates are from ethnic or linguistic minorities (Le Clézio, Jelinek, Kertész, Gao and Szymborska) and therefore write about the political or social oppression that comes from this condition.

Herta Müller was born in the once Austro-Hungarian province of Banat, now part of Romania, and is therefore a part of the German minority of Romania. She writes, of course, about Ceauşescu’s communist regime: Herta Müller was in fact dismissed from her job because she didn’t want to cooperate with the Romanian secret police, moving to Germany in 1987 as a result of threats by the communists. The traumas of being in exile in her own country, Romania, and of being a minority in an oppressive communist regime have great influence on her works.

Unfortunately, only five of her works are translated into English and even in Germany she is not well known. Her masterpiece is considered to be Herztier, published in English as The Land of Green Plums: in Romania at the height of Ceausescu's reign, several young people leave the impoverished provinces for the city in search of better prospects, but they must face betrayal, suicide, and the reality that even the strongest must bend to the oppressors or resist and die. Other important works are The Appointment, about a young woman working in a clothes factory during Ceausescu's regime and The Passport (here’s a link with an extract), the story of a village miller in a German-speaking village in Romania, who applies for permission to emigrate to West Germany.

Reading the reactions to this award, I gather that everybody who has read her books agree that she is an exceptional writer, but the point of debate is more the meaning of this prize for the literary world, as if the commettee was trying to send a message. Similar polemics and observations arouse last year when JMG Le Clézio, also little known outside of France, won the prize (here’s a link to my post on the topic).

The Guardian reports that “Pete Ayrton, who has published Müller in translation at Serpent's Tail, said he was ‘absolutely thrilled’ at the news. "It's terrific and I think it shows the Nobel prize are doing their job to bring the writings of wonderful, neglected writers, who are underappreciated in the Anglo Saxon world, to our attention" he said.”

Two book bloggers, also of The Guardian, reflect on the award. Marting Chalmers in “Why Herta Müller Matters” writes: “It is once again challenging the self-satisfied Anglo-centrism of the English-language publishing business, with its rather narrow definitions of what constitutes good writing, and it is widening our ideas of Europe. And it is perhaps in its failure to engage with European literatures that the English culture, for all the advantages of the global reach of the English language, shows itself at its most provincial.”

It is very selfish and imperialistic to think that the judges were thinking of sending a message only to the Anglo Saxon book business, rather than to the whole literary world. Richard Lea is less "anglocentric" and, even admitting that he’s not an expert on Ngugi Wa Thiong’o or any other non-European writer, he thinks that the Swedish Committee is “running a European Club” and actually, if you read the list of recent winners, you only find writers who are not that far away from Sweden: JMG Le Clézio (France), Harold Pinter (England), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, almost Europe), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria), Imre Kertész (Hungary) and Günter Grass (Germany).

Memole says: I don't know what to think. It's good that they are encouraging European literatures and that they don't stick to British/American authors, but it's also true that they could open their minds and give the award to an Asian or African writer, there are so many. On the other hand, I'm afraid that in 20 years' time we will be musing over the fact that Philip Roth or Amos Oz didn't receive the prize (the writer must be alive to be eligible), as we do now with Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. It seems to me that the judges decided to award the prize to a writer who's from an ethnic or linguistic minority, who suffered the injusticies of Nazism or Communism or any other dictatorship, fought against it and wrote about it, who's European but not British, better if from the new members of the European Union, who's a woman, who's not translated enought into English... and only after that agreed that the only writer who answers these characteristics is Herta Müller.

Here's a link to an article of the New York Times with more excerpts from Herta Müller's works.

L’unico suo libro disponibile in italiano è Il Paese delle Prugne Verdi. Sono stati pubblicati altri due dei suoi libri: Bassure, nel 1987, e In Viaggio Su Una Gamba Sola, nel 1992, entrambi ora fuori catalogo. Lei era anche presente al Festivaletteratura di Mantova (qui un link ad un articolo tratto da Il Corriere della Sera).


  1. Yes I came back here. Hmm I am realising this too! Does it mean that the Nobel is becoming Europeanised? I have also wondered why Achebe has not won the Nobel though he has won the Man Booker International Prize. I haven't read this author and I don't think that I would be enthused to read this book.

  2. Yes Nana, I'm afraid the prize is becoming Europeanised. The chairman of the judges said that it's clear that the centre of world literature is still Europe, implying that the prize is to be awarded to a European writer.
    The centre of world literature is certainly Europe from HIS point of view, that is the point of view of a Swedish accademic. Did you know that the judges of the nobel prize (all Swedish) are appointed for life? I think that the Nobel Prize for Literature shouldn't have the symbolic value of the most important literary prize in the world, because after all it's only the opinion of a small group of accademics from a Northern Euoropean country. If the prize was awarded by African judges or also by some African judges, there would be more African Nobel prizes.

    I don't feel any urgency to read Herta Muller, either. I really hope that the next Nobel Prize will be somewhere else on the globe, we have had enough nobel prizes (especially in the north and east of europe).

  3. I agree with you completely. I didn't know that they are voted for life. This means it would take a long while for them to change their thinking. I was wondering if the Nobel is to make someone popular or not.

  4. I had been born in Romania and lived under the communist regime. I do not believe her saying that she refused to be an informant and did not go to jail for it; instead she was let go to Berlin. She may have the Nobel prize but I do not believe she tels us the truth.

  5. @ Anonymous: What you say about Herta Mueller is very interesting. Only time will (maybe) give us a response to that.
    In the meantime, as I wrote to Nana, I'm not going to rush to the library to by a book by Herta Mueller. In Italy we've had many writers who wrote about life in a totalitarian regime (Mussolini's) and the same is true for many parts of the world. It's nothing new.