German-Romanian writer Herta Müller is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2009. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said her work ‘with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”.
While the bookies’ hot favourite for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Hilary Mantel, took that coveted award on Tuesday night, Müller was not on any bookmakers’radar — or that of many critics and Nobel-watchers. But her lifelong record of opposing oppression without doubt counted in her favour with the Academy, always mindful of living embodiments of freedom of speech.
The English-speaking world is familiar with four of her novels, translated from the German, but now is in for a protracted catch-up session, Müller having written 19 books in German.
Müller has been an outsider since birth. Born on August 17 1953 in Nitzkydorf, a German-speaking town in Banat, Romania, Müller grew up in the shadow of her mother’s deportation to the Soviet Union in 1945, and five years spent subsequently at a labour camp in what is now Ukraine.
Exacerbating Müller’s minority status in Romania was her father’s service in the Waffen SS during World War II. Family histories and circumstances were to lead to Atemschaukel, published this year, in which Müller portrays the lives of German-Romanian exiles in the Soviet Union.
Müller studied German and Romanian literatures at the university in Timişoara, Romania, from 1973 to 1976. There, she was part of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a grouping of young German-speaking writers advocating freedom of speech and opposing Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship.
Her studies led to nothing more elevated than working as a translator at a machine factory from 1977 to 1979. She lost that job when she refused secret police overtures to become an informant.
Müller’s literary debut, a collection of short stories, Niederungen (1982), was censored in Romania. Banned entirely from publishing in Romania following public criticism of Ceauşescu, Müller immigrated to Germany with her husband, fellow author Richard Wagner. They now live in Berlin, which with Müller’s Nobel Prize has gained yet another jewel in its cultural crown.