“Language has different eyes.”
Transcript of the English translation of the telephone interview with Herta Müller immediately following the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, 8 October 2009. The interview was recorded minutes after the announcement and conducted in Müller’s native German. The interviewer is freelance journalist Marika Griehsel.
[Herta Müller] Hello …
[Marika Griehsel] Ms. Müller, congratulations. My name is Marika Griehsel and I am calling from the Nobel Foundation’s website offices. Again, our warmest congratulations…
[HM] Thank you.
[MG] You write in German, and you once said that writing is very important to you, existential …
[HM] Well, writing was the only thing where I could be myself, because under the dictatorship … and, well, it gave me something to hold on to … but actually it was not that important when I did work – when I had a job – for I was always getting fired, from everywhere. And then I was subjected to all this chicanery, continually; the interrogations and the persecution. Sometimes the writing also appeared as though one were a bit crazy … because the country was so poor and one had witnessed such unhappiness and sometimes one thought to oneself, well, in a way it really is … these things have no place in this world.
[MG] But it was somehow always what you did in order to see the other side, wasn’t it?
[HM] So that I can nevertheless be certain that I am still myself, that I exist.
[MG] You went to live in Germany in 1987?
[MG] But you continue to write a lot about the old country … why is that, do you think?
[HM] Well, I think that the heavy weight … that literature goes to where the weight is. And I lived under this dictatorship for over thirty years and that is where the injuries and the theme are … I did not choose this theme, the theme always seeks me out. This theme I shall not … I am still not rid of this theme. And one has to write about the things that occupy one incessantly. And it’s important, dictatorship … for unfortunately that dictatorship was not the very last. Regrettably, there are still so many in the world.
[MG] When you started to write, for whom did you write, and whom do you write for now?
[HM] Well, actually, I have always written only for myself. To clarify things, to clarify things with myself, to understand in an inner way what is actually happening. Or: What has become of me? I come from a very small village, and then came the city, and there were always discontinuities and then I was a minority, German … and one didn’t belong anyway. Then I had this major conflict with my compatriots, with the German minority: they excommunicated me, already when I wrote my first book, as someone who fouls their own nest, so to speak, because I wrote about the situation with the involvement with National Socialism, and about the archaic fossilized way of life in the village, about its ethnocentrism. And they did not forgive me for that.
They wanted literature about their homeland, “Heimatliteratur”, and they felt that I, well that I compromised them. It is a very conservative minority and thus I was excluded, and I was excluded from Romanian society for political reasons. And then I came to Germany and here in Germany I was always the Romanian, and in Romania I was always the German. So somehow one is always the other …
[MG] Yes, indeed. Is that important, do you think, that you felt you were on the outside?
[HM] I don’t know whether it’s important. It’s certainly something one can do without. And sometimes it hurts. People want to belong in certain respects, but it was as it was and I got used to it and at some point it was just a matter of fact. And that’s what it is. And, one can’t force oneself upon people and betray the way one thinks? If I don’t belong because of what I think and because of my opinions, then so be it. What can one do about it? One can’t bend over backwards or pretend to be someone else just to belong. And in any case it doesn’t work. Once you no longer belong, it’s over.
[MG] Is literature for you … writing … does one have to be very honest?
[HM] Yes, one has to be honest with oneself. Through writing one experiences something different to what one experiences with the five senses one has because language is a different métier. And in writing one searches, and that is what keeps one writing, that one sees and experiences things from another angle entirely, one experiences oneself during the process of writing. Writing itself does not know what it looks like while one is doing it, only when it’s finished. And as long as I am writing I am in safekeeping, then I have some idea of how life could go on, and when I get to the end of a text I don’t know it anymore.
[MG] That sounds good. “Atemschaukel” [literally: breath swing/see-saw] – do you think it is difficult – You have a group of people, Germans, who were in prison; they were not very well-liked, were they? Nobody thought about them after World War II was over … what did you mean by that?
[HM] Yes, well, … deportation after 1945 naturally had to do with the Second World War …
Oh, there’s the door bell. It’s utter madness here in the house … they are already at the front door …
Well, they were deported in the name of collective guilt, the German minority was involved; they were in the SS or the German army. Romania under Antonescu was a fascist state …
[HM] Be a bit quiet, otherwise I can’t talk on the phone … it’s a friend of mine … oh, I can’t understand you …
[MG] O.K. I think the big party is about to start – just quickly: you said it was collective guilt, just quickly.
[HM] Yes, and in my opinion collective guilt is always unjust because the people who were deported were not in the war back then. The deportations took place already in January 1945, but the war didn’t end until May. My father was in the SS, he had not even returned from the front. And so they took civilians, took really young people, 17-year-olds like Oskar Pastior, who were personally not guilty, and Romania was also a fascist state with Antonescu on Hitler’s side and it only changed sides at the last minute, or was made to change sides, because the Soviets made Romania change sides. And that also made the German minority stubborn about reflecting on their involvement with National Socialism, because the Romanians were also all at Stalingrad with Antonescu, and afterwards, after 1945, only the minorities were held responsible. The Hungarian minority with Horthy, Horthy’s followers and the Germans as the supporters of Hitler, but that the entire population of Romania at that time was on the side of Nazi Germany, afterwards, after 1945, history was falsified.
Yes, my mother was also deported, for five years. But I tried to see these things in context. If Nazi Germany had not committed such crimes, there would have been no deportation. One must always keep this in mind. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. But it was a consequence of the crimes in which the minority was involved of course.
[MG] What do you think, your books will also be translated into Romanian. How will your reception be there?
[HM] Well, it will vary. In general the books are well received. But that’s just one side. Probably if someone selects a book to review, they perhaps quite like it. But in Romanian society I am not particularly well-liked. I don’t often receive invitations. Because still today I have too many negative things to say about the conditions in Romania, because that is what it’s like. Because the entire old nomenklatura and the secret service have divided up all the positions in the country between them. And that is an entire network. They help themselves and help each other. And that is also an explanation of why corruption is all-pervasive in Romania. Regrettably, Romania is still quite a long way away from democracy.
They don’t like to hear that in Romania. That is an everlasting problem. Those in exile should hold their tongues, and then they also say that I don’t know anything about it anymore.
[MG] Your language is German but you also have Romanian influences … how does this make itself apparent?
[HM] Well, that is my native tongue, German. I learned Romanian very late, when I was fifteen, in town, and I wanted to learn it. I like the language very much. Romanian is a very beautiful, sensual, poetic language. And from that moment onward – it was perhaps good that I learned it so late because – then I had an eye for it – I realised just how rich Romanian is in imagery, what marvellous metaphors there are, the common metaphors that people use every day, in superstitions or … in expressions, many things are contradictory, or the names of plants, that they are called something completely different than in German. That is then a different look at the same thing … I have always seen that there are two stations, the one is the station on my language for something, and the other is this other station. It is not only a different word, it is a different view. Language has different eyes. In my case Romanian always writes with me, also when I am not writing in Romanian, because I have it in my head.
And I have two views from the other language, they are always there. I frequently don’t know which one it is from which I am writing.
[MG] Which works of yours do you recommend we read first?
[HM] I don’t know. Well, in German I would of course recommend my last book. One is always closest to the last work. “Die Atemschaukel”.
[MG] “Die Atemschaukel”. Well, the publicity now will be tremendous; how do you feel about that?
[HM] Well, I don’t know what to say.
[HM] One is not a different person. All this has actually nothing to do with the writing itself. I am happy now, but I shall remain down to earth. So I shall file this away for the time being. And in two or three days it will hit home. I know it in this moment, but I still don’t believe it. I can’t realise it. It has to be that way. I don’t know why I deserve such happiness. I sometimes think that happiness has erred. Perhaps I don’t deserve it at all. Why am I entitled to so much happiness?
[MG] Ms. Müller, many, many, thanks, and congratulations …
[HM] I thank you. All the best.
[MG] All the best to you. Thank you very much, bye.
Translated from the German by Gloria Custance
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