Herta Müller Comes to Town

We are in my neighborhood in a hall at the 92Y. We're waiting for Herta Müller’s conversation with another female writer whom I don't know. I read the Pen World Voices Festival brochure for background. 

On Friday, May 4 at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center, New York City
In Conversation: Herta Müller and Claire Messud

The Swedish Academy described 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Müller as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” Born in rural Romania as part of the German-speaking minority, Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller has recalled her childhood as a “school of silence,” where the loss of words reflected an inadequacy of language itself. It also resulted from an oppressive dictatorial regime with both communist and nationalistic traits. Writing became a way to break the silence.
Translated into over 40 languages, her works have received worldwide acclaim for their unflinching portrayals of the corrosive effect of political oppression on the human spirit. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to hear Müller. In her first New York appearance in over a decade, after a reading from her forthcoming novel The Hunger Angel, Müller will be interviewed by another literary titan, Claire Messud.
Never heard of this other literary titan. Titaness. Amazon. Oh, Lord! I’m an ignorant. A ubiquitous voice booms out that photographing and recording equipment are strictly prohibited in the concert hall. Doesn't say a thing about taking notes. Rather weird that we are about to listen to a Nobel Prize winner who fought dictatorship and we start the evening with forbidden this, prohibited that.

A bland guy, the translator of Müller’s latest novel, starts reading chapters from her book. His delivery is melancholy, on the pompous side, much aware that he is reading Nobel Prize material and has to be deeply moved and ponderous. It is weird that the festival wouldn't hire an actor to read such fine writing to do it justice. This in a city chockfull with eager, skilled and often unemployed, thus cheap labor, actors. I look about the room. I’m seated in the front row. People are accordingly impressed, eyes shut in the mask of devotion, same crowd that goes to museums to take pictures of themselves next to Monet paintings, and reads only prize-winning novels. The smear of the seal of approval. God, I’m grouchy.
Finally he’s done. And now, here’s Herta! Three frail little ladies show up on stage taking seats. The interviewer starts talking. She talks too much, like Eminescu’s critics, ‘Nu slăvindu-te pe tine, lustruindu-se pe ei./Not praising you, but polishing/preening themselves.' I fade in and out. So what you read are snippets of her word deluge:

Claire Messud: …She was born in a German village in Romania... The novel The Hunger Angeldescribes the deportation of the German speaking villagers in 1945 to the Soviet Union to work camps…. She immigrated to Germany in 1987. Little facts. I assume many of you have read the novel. If you haven’t, you must. [Herta’s dismissive shrug, Why must you?! creates laughter] The Hunger Angel is a first person account of a man who was deported when he was 17 in 1945 to a Soviet labor camp... Collaborator Oscar Pasteur…. New York Book Reviews, “A writer who is not a survivor who has never been in a camp who sits down and write a book about the camps, requires imagination, meticulous research, rich literary gifts and a lot of courage.”Fortunately for us, Herta Müller has all of these talents in spades, and as readers we’re her awed beneficiaries. Please join me in welcoming Herta Müller. [Applause.] You’re intensely inventive with language, but you have said, “I don’t like to write, I don’t trust language.” [Audience laughter] What you meant?

The interpreter does her shushed translation into German of the question. Then finally Herta starts talking. She speaks in a soft German language, so unlike the ungainly, grating crintz-crontz of the war movies I grew up with. I can’t speak German. So I wait until the interpreter finishes taking her notes and starts talking so I understand. Why they couldn’t have simultaneously translation. God, we are in New York, this is a Nobel Prize winner! Step it up, Pen Voices Festival! This is history in the making! Anyway, I look at Herta. She has red hands and neck, though a pale white face. She must be nervous. I used to get red blotches on my neck too when I began public speaking. Thread thin eyebrows, murky eyes, striking red lipstick, she looks like old fashioned movie stars, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich. She’s a little old lady with nervous tics and twitches. She constantly places her hair behind her ears, wiggles her feet in dominatrix half boots, scratches her head, fiddles with her delicate rings on her bony fingers.
Her short nails lacquered with transparent polish. Plays with her wrist watch. Shy, fidgety.
The interpreter, in a black lace blouse that slipped off, one withered skin shoulder naked. She’s caked with makeup.

The interviewer's gray purple boots, scuffed boot soles.
All three ladies speak in hesitant, stuttering words. Herta ends her sentences with a moan, she has her signature moan, a groan of understanding.

Herta Müller [via translator]: Language in itself doesn’t exist. It is only what we can do with it, what we won’t do with it. It is what happens to human beings or does not happen to them. Language does not exist without human beings. I have learned not to trust language in a dictatorship because I learned all the things a dictator can do with it. Language can help to kill, can help to save, we can do everything with language. But language is nothing without its relationship to human beings.
I’m afraid of writing; this is why I don’t really like to write. Also I don’t like to work. I prefer not to do, so writing is a lot of work. And trouble. Life is one thing, language is another. Language is a totally artificial thing. I have to force it to obey what I want to say.
Whenever I started writing I became obsessed with it. I didn’t have to do it, but it became like an addiction once I started doing it. And it gave me somewhat of an inner stability, something to hold on to, a possibility to exist, so I kept returning to writing. And with each book I thought this would be the very last one, but two years later I found myself writing the next book and this is how it has been for the last 30 years. I would have never imagined that I would be a writer, and that I would write literature. My interest in literature was, ‘How can one live?’ Literature was teaching me how to survive. Poems have shown me how not to be alone, at least while I was reading them, afterwards I was lonely again.
Messud: So if you read literature to learn how to live, do you write it also for the same purpose?
Yes. I started writing to bear myself. I could not bear myself otherwise. Also at that time I was living in an environment in which I was confronted with all the unhappiness in the world, it was not only about me, but also what I saw, so writing helped me endure this. And then it became a habit, after all it’s a profession, once you keep doing it, you don’t do anything else. It’s a job. It gave me something to hold on to and at some point it worked like a key to open something.
Messud: Back to the question about language. There is this sense of inventing the language; he makes new words, the poetry of the camp, in the Land of Plums girls talk in code, if I mention ‘I’m taking a walk’ that means ‘I’m being followed’. The names he gives to his lovers. A word can open an entire experience. It seems as though… [A long, long question.
Herta moans in understanding. Whispering interpreter.]

Müller: Yes. [An all-encompassing, playful and ironic Yes. Audience guffaws of laughter.]
This kind of language…
Irritated male audience member: Can’t hear you!
Müller [via Translator]:
Oh, this kind of language is a language of hiding. The codes are a way of hiding behind words.
These communities needed them because they are in danger. Homosexuals have to hide behind these different names, it is the language of fear, one can hide not just behind objects, but also behind words. Language in itself is a hiding place. Lies hideouts. We all lie at some point in our lives. Everybody is familiar with the hideouts of lies. Especially in a dictatorship one lies so much one cannot talk of a lie anymore. Because they are necessary to survive the battle.
Messud: So working with Oscar Pasteur. How that came about, you initially had the idea of working together, then he passed away…
[via Translator]: I always wanted to write about the subject of deportation. And one of the reasons was that my mother herself had been deported for five years, which had a lot of consequences, which as a child I did not understand but I felt them. As a child I always thought of my mother as an old woman. I somehow was aware that she carried something around with her. I didn’t know what camps were, and I didn’t understand what deportation was, but I felt it. And she was not the only one, basically everybody in the village who had survived. It was a collective experience they all carried around with them. They were all peasants and peasants don’t talk about themselves, besides, it was forbidden to talk about deportation as a result of the fascist Romania that was denied after the war. Antonescu had stood beside Hitler, but after the war Romania began to falsify its history claiming it had been on the side of the soviets when really they were on the side of Hitler. [Deep silence.]

What is she saying?! Romania was on Hitler’s side. Yes, I know that. But why is she saying they falsified history? Romanians did. Did they?! I don’t remember exactly the history book, but as if it said under Dictator General Antonescu the country was forced to fight for the Germans. Then they got rid of Antonescu and turned around and fought next to the Russians. One main national holiday, 23 August, was our Day Of The Liberation From The Fascist Yoke. We paraded with our school and townsmen every year on that day! I don’t know what to think, since they did falsify the history books on other occasions. Put young Ceausescu’s picture in the middle of a revolutionary crowd to prove he was a hero.

Maybe she’s right. And yet, I don’t think so, since two years ago I interviewed Mr. Bodea, a World War Two veteran who told me how when he was 17 he went to fight for the Germans and then orders came to turn the train around and fight against the Germans! He fought for several years against those Germans! What is she talking about?! This man didn’t lie to me.Romania fought against Hitler.

I listen to her talk about kartoffeln. Lots of kartoffeln.
Her apologetic laughter for translator, she talked too much perhaps?
Both translator and Herta are caked in makeup, harsh black eyeliner, and clownish strong lipstick.
Her yellow teeth are so un-American.
Pained dolorosa, she says kaput kaput cox kaput.
They sit in beige armchairs with tables with water bottles next to blue cups with the 92Y logo on. On the background curtains also 92Y logo.
She wears black suede thick sensible heels.

Müller [via Translator]: So when I talked to my mother more recently she always talked about all the people who had died, and I realized if I waited any longer there will not be anybody left who can tell me about the camps. My mother herself never talked about the camps only in the recurring sentences that were immutable, always the same. She’d say things like thirst is more painful than hunger, wind is colder than snow, one potato is like a warm bed, to her potatoes were the basic food at the time, it could either save you or kill you.
As a child she showed me a hundred times how to properly peel a potato. It had to be done in a way that the skin was peeled very thinly and all in one piece. Nothing had to be wasted. Since this was a very strange complicity with the potato, as if she wanted to protect the potato, she had a strange relationship to that kind of food which I did not quite understand, we actually had quite enough potatoes, but every millimeter had to be preserved, there were many things that oppressed me as a child. Even her way of eating was very strange to me. It was uncanny. She ate very fast, and often just eating standing up, not sitting down. There were lots of things, for example I had long braids and when she combed me and she’d always tell me the story how her head had been shaven in the camp, and I wanted to cut my hair so I wouldn’t have to listen to that story again.
[Laughter] These things I found as a child. And even if my mother repeated these strange sentences she did really not tell me anything. As far as Pasteur is concerned I knew him but not very well, we both lived in Berlin and I knew that he had been deported. So I thought I wanted to talk to someone who, as opposed to the peasants in my village I tried to talk to, who could really tell the story, because the peasants in the village were shy and embarrassed to talk about themselves, it was not part of their being.
By coincidence Pasteur and I traveled together to Southern Tyrolia to Innsbruck and then traveled together to Lana in Southern Tyrolia and while we were driving through the mountainous area with all those fir trees and I was oh, these trees are just terrible, they’re always the same, they’re always green, there they stand and we adore them. For Christmas we take them into our homes, and other trees work so much harder, they change their colors all the time, they produce leaves and fruits, they change colors, and Pasteur said don’t talk about those trees like that, he said that he once at the camp had taken a pair of green woolen gloves and unraveled them and he has created his own little Tannenbaum, out of those gloves and this was the very last vestige of civilization.
So after this story about the Tannenbaum I thought, these are the kind of stories I need, these are the kind of details that nobody mentioned to me. So I asked him to tell me about the camp and he said yes. We decided to meet every week and we talked and I wrote everything down. In the beginning we wrote things such as they were, but after awhile we developed a desire to invent things, but then Pasteur died suddenly of heart attack at the Frankfurt book fair, he just died, as if the lights had been turned off, so I was left wondering how the book would have been if we had written it together.
I have been very lucky that Pasteur and I travelled to Ukraine together to look at the campsite he had been deported to. So I did see those places. Ukraine had not been independent for a very long time when we traveled there, so we visited the camp, the Coxchim coal factory and once again it had turned into a ruin. We were allowed to visit under supervision. We saw much of it as he described and so much of it was still there! For example the zeppelin, that pipe that people used as a brothel was still there, the cooling tower, though everything was broken, and Pasteur showed me the door to the basement where he had worked. I saw the landscape, the plants, the trees, and when he had died I dared to invent because I had seen it all from him, but I had not asked him that much yet. He basically gave me names like, Priculici, and maybe two or three sentences about the person, but because I had seen the place, I felt I could try inventing.
So when Oscar Pasteur died, to write the book alone did not seem interesting to me at that moment. I was more concerned with having lost a friend. It was a catastrophe. I didn’t look at the notes for almost a year. It was too painful. But after awhile I thought he had wished so much that this book would be written and he had trusted me so in a sense I owed him and I thought if I failed I can say I couldn’t do it, I didn’t manage but I tried it. So one year after his death, I decided to write the book, I had to say good bye to the idea of WE ‘cause I couldn’t be Pasteur and myself, and I still ask myself , do I have the right to write the book this way, but I felt very responsible and I thought I had to do it. It was also part of my grieving process. And it kept him with me for so long after his death, in a sense we were both together. And I did feel it cannot be a bad book because he gave so much but if it’s bad I’ll have to throw it to the trash.
Messud: Luckily that didn’t happen.
[Audience giggles] We only have a little time, we could all just stay here a couple of hours… I thought we only just got started, but it seems we don’t have much time, we have a couple of questions from the audience. One of them, I actually wanted to know too, what your ties to Romania are?
Herta makes such a grimace! She’s not a happy camper when she hears about Romania. She sighs, moans, twists her mouth, twitches her nose. God! I hear in the sea of German words I recognize: komplizen Romania scandal New York. Romanian grotesque.

Müller [via Translator]: I go once a year to Romania, I left in 1987 and I was not allowed back into the country until Ceausescu was disposed of. It was the first time was in 1991. But I’m not at home there anymore, that’s the eternal problem of exile, because you have to change in exile and you don’t return the same way you were when you left. And those who stay usually are not very happy to see you, because those who left just know too much. Know too much about their lies, their opportunism, their shabby lies. And it’s always that when a dictatorship has ended everybody all of a sudden is a dissident. There are many, many more dissidents than during the dictatorship. [Laughter] And it seems like nobody was ever with the dictatorship.
And yeah. It is strange, now when I’m traveling there are Romanians everywhere. I meet Romanians everywhere. That is surprising because before, I didn’t meet these Romanians. Nobody, no Romanian wanted to be seen with me because I was an enemy of the state. So it’s kind of grotesque to see how things change after a dictatorship. Nevertheless I do have a lot of longing for Romania. I was after all 34 years old when I left and I’ve spent half my life there. I’ve been socialized there. But when I’m there everything may drive me crazy and I don’t feel at home, nevertheless half a year later I may want to return again. This is part of the prophet, one has to somehow allow even this disappointment and longing to make kind of a normal situation.
I have once said that heimat, the German word for home is what someone can’t bear and someone can’t get rid of either.  

Messud: I think sadly that might be the place we had to stop. It has been a great privilege. Thank you, Herta Müller. [Applause]Please join us in the gallery for book signing.
I rushed with my stack of books to join the line. We were asked if anyone wanted Messud to autograph her books, but only a few were interested. So much for the other literature titaness. This is the first time I’ve ever waited in line to get an autograph. I’ve waited in enough lines for food under communism. Some had 10 copies of the same book. Herta signed them all. When my turn came, I opened the books at the title page, as requested by the line supervisor. I heard myself jovially speak in Romanian to Herta.  

Ella Veres: Da domnule, ca pe bandă rulantă!/Here we go, conveyor-belt output! 
Müller: Da./Yes.[Laughs]  
Veres:I laughed a lot last summer when I watched on the internet your conversation with Gabriel Liiceanu, how he doggedly asked you to acknowledge he and others were dissidents. It was like in that joke, Hai te rog, zi frăguţă!  
Müller: Grotesque is what it was. Grotesque. 
Veres:Thank you. 

I took my autographed books and left. I carried them like a trophy. My son might sell them on Ebay when I’m gone. I read them when they were published in Romanian. She should give Romanians credit for translating and publishing them in Romanian way before they were translated into English. Grotesque, Romanians eager to meet her she deemed grotesque, but it is what it is. I walked in the balmy night on the wide avenues of Manhattan. Away from Romania and its headaches. The next day though I thought it over. So here we were, lots of Romanians in the hall that night. And what does Herta Muller do? Insult us all. You’re all grotesque paying $20 to come and hear me. And what do we do? Listen and pretend she doesn’t talk about us. She calls us grotesque and we don’t boo her. We pretend we are not the Romanians she calls grotesque. Does she talk about me? Am I grotesque because I made an effort to come listen to her, a Noble Prize winner who lived under communism and preserved her integrity? Dignity? She was not talking to me, she was talking about run-away Securitate folks, for sure. No, no, she was talking about ordinary Romanians who live abroad. But there are all kinds of Romanians. Some are like her, ran away from the horrible things that happened to them in Romania. Why does she hate those ones too? Why is she saying they are grotesque because they come and talk to her? Is she not thinking? Maybe before she got the Nobel Prize many Romanians didn’t know about her. After all how many of us read depressing literature. Maybe Romanians didn’t talk to her because they never heard of her. Now they come out of the woodwork because she has a badge of distinction, and honesty, so they come say hello to a fellow Romanian survivor. And then what does Herta, Nobel Prize winner do? Punch me in the face. I’m grotesque. And what do I do? I smile and say thank you for winning the Nobel Prize for me, Herta. You and Nadia Comăneci made me proud. What’s wrong with you, Herta? Why are you generalizing? There are Romanians and Romanians. You were to stop the hate, not use your Nobel Prize lectern to spread it.  

I told my mom about the evening. She said Saxons, Romanian Germans, were extremely nationalistic. And she commented that 'La pomul lăudat să nu te duci cu sacul./Don't go with the sack to the praised fruit tree.' 
May 23, 2012 New York

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