Herta Müller’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2009
(Translation of the German text)
Your Royal Highnesses
Ladies and Gentlemen
The trajectory that leads from a child tending cows in the valley to the Stockholm City Hall is a strange one. Here, too, (as is often the case), I am standing beside myself.
It was only against my mother’s will that I attended the preparatory high school in the city. She wanted me to become a seamstress in the village. She knew that if I moved to the city I would become corrupted. And I was. I started to read books. The village seemed more and more to me like a box in which a person was born, married and died. All the people in the village inhabited an older time, they were born old. I thought: sooner or later you have to leave the village if you want to grow young. In the village everyone cowered before the state, but among themselves and towards each other they were obsessively controlling, to the point of self-destruction. The same mix of cowardice and control could be found throughout the city as well. Private cowardice to the point of self-destruction, state control to the point of breaking the individual. That is perhaps the shortest way to describe daily life during the dictatorship.
Fortunately I made some friends in the city, a handful of young writers from the Aktionsgruppe Banat. Without them I wouldn’t have read or written any books at all. More importantly: these friends were absolutely essential. Had it not been for them I wouldn’t have been able to stand the repression. Today I am thinking of these friends, including the ones in the cemetery – the ones that the Romanian secret service has on its conscience.
I saw many people break down. I was on the verge of doing so myself, but shortly before that happened I was able to leave Romania. I’d already had a great deal of luck, all undeserved, since luck is not something that can be deserved. Happiness may perhaps be shared. But not luck, sadly. Now, standing here beside myself in Stockholm, I’m very lucky once again. Because this prize helps both those who lived through the kind of repression that aims to break human beings and those who, thank God, did not have to: the ones to remember what they experienced, and the others to bear these things in mind. Because to this very day there are dictatorships of every stripe. Some go on forever, always frightening us anew, such as Iran. Others, such as Russia and China, don cloaks of respectability; they liberalize their economies, but human rights remain firmly in the grip of Stalinism or Maoism. And then there are the half-democracies of Eastern Europe, which since 1989 have been putting on and taking off their respectable cloaks so often that they’re practically in tatters.
Literature can’t change all of that. But it can – and this is in hindsight – use language to invent a truth that shows what happens in us and around us when values become derailed.
Literature speaks with everyone individually – it is personal property that stays inside our heads. And nothing speaks to us as forcefully as a book, which expects nothing in return, other than that we think and feel.
I’d like to thank the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation – many thanks.
Translated by Philip Boehm