Herta Müller

I think of this often when reading Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature for her depiction of life under the Romanian communist regime. Her novels and short stories are often narrated by what could be called an “immature voice,” or one that doesn’t traffick in ontological realism. In “Village Chronicle,” Müller’s narrator is invisible, nameless, simply recording what she sees and how humans use language to describe it. There is no plot—but the story moves by juxtaposition, by alternating a thing with what it is called “in the village,” and this serves to show how the language of totalitarianism (which had more power in the cities) doesn’t stick in the village. 

Müller’s attention to small details creates an abyss between life as it is lived, or performed, under a totalitarian system, and language, which must be continuously translated. The refusal to offer plot, or to link actions to consequences, is both child-like and symptomatic of trauma. The communist regime in Romania made life unlivable for German-speaking minorities and Hungarian ones. The author brings this double-alienation to her powerful stories. 

In “Nadirs,” a novella-length short story, Müller describes how her Swabian village is haunted by violence and war; every object speaks to signify the losses. “I saw mother lying naked and frozen in Russia, with scraped legs and green lips from the turnips,” she writes, revealing how the mother’s memories of camps in Siberia are carried by the child in images and objects, in the lowlands of the bogs and village marshes whose frogs are “croaking from all the living and the dead of this village.” The frogs, like the dead, are inescapable: “Everybody brought a frog along with them when they immigrated.”

Read this passage from Müller’s “Nadirs” and notice how she describes night.

The characters are helpless—it is thunder (or fear) that closes the blinds. It is the telephone wires that argue and trees that lash out at each other. Even the boxes are haunted by the silence of the Grandmother. 

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We learn by imitation and emulation—we watch someone dive from the side of the pool and decide to try it ourselves. I learn alot from Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis’

use of documents and documentary forms in order to challenge the truth of official papers and sacred texts.

Read his short “fiction” titled “To Die for One’s Country Is Glorious.” 

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“The protagonist lives in a big house full of furniture and religion,” Silvina Ocampo tells us in her posthumous novel, The Promise. And we imagine the rest—we feel the loneliness of the house’s assertive furnishings, the anomie of the conspicuous moral signals, the emptiness. Ocampo blurs the boundary between thought and action by giving us the inside of the narrator’s head. The strange juxtapositions help us understand the narrator looking back on her life, and she accomplishes this by often abandoning transitions. For example, read these two sentences and notice how there is no bridge between them: “Existentialists are in fashion. That boy just winked at me.” Ocampo keeps the reader moving from interior to exterior. She also does this within sentences by refusing the comma, the association, as in, describing the mothers: “They have varicose veins and children and they’re hungry.”