Herta Müller has lived through the kind of vicious absurdity that most can only imagine. A member of Romania’s German minority, which was protected when Romania allied itself with Hitler, but was then persecuted under Ceauşescu’s communist dictatorship, she will always be an outsider, someone whose past will never allow them to fit in. Born in a German-speaking village, she had no real contact with Romanian until she was a teenager. She found work as a translator of technical manuals in a tractor factory, but after she refused to collaborate with the secret police, the harassment started. She turned up for work one day to find herself barred from her office. So she worked on the stairs. Then the secret police started to spread rumours that she was a police informer. Ironically, because she had refused to become a spy, people now believed she was one. She was eventually dismissed and later her apartment was bugged, she could not find work, she was picked up, questioned and kicked around.
Confronted by all this harassment she felt increasingly confused and started to write as a way of proving to herself that she still existed. Müller says that she learnt to live by writing, that writing was the only place where she could live by the standards she dreamt of and the only place where she could express what she could never live. She finally left Romania to settle in Germany in 1987. Müller writes short stories, novels, poems and essays, but all her work deals with the experience of oppression, of exile, of conforming to family and state. It deals with the difficulties of being oneself.
Her first book Nadirs (Niederungen, 1982, first published with full, uncensored text in 1984) describes life in a small village from a child’s point of view and, like all her work, is brutally frank about corruption and cruelty, whether shown by Romanians, or by the German minority. She expands details of ordinary life into fantastic images, words are used unconventionally and horror and absurdity are mixed with extreme poeticism. German is Müller’s mother tongue, but she uses German from another time and place, and in her essays Der König verneigt sich und tötet (2003) she discusses the importance of language as identity and exemplifies ways that language is used by the majority to brand immigrants and outsiders. Her strong attachment to Romanian clearly emerges in her collage-poems, in which she cuts out words or syllables from Romanian magazines and pastes them down to make poems. Once stuck down, you cannot change them, and Müller has said that this is what appeals to her about collage. A collage is like the past: you cannot wipe it away. It is part of who you are and who you will be.