Muller's fragile prose reminds us of the lasting impact history can have on the imaginationby Bettany Hughes / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
History can mess with your mind. Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, with prose as fragile and as fine as sugar-crystal, reminds us of this truth with her essays on Ceausescu’s Romania. Born in the German-speaking Swabian minority of western Romania, to a mother who had been interred in Soviet camps and a father targeted for financial punishment, Müller emerges from the page as a highly sensitive child subjugated to a life of peasantry. She communicates the drumming dread of her childhood in a series of surreal and striking metaphors; she is desperate to move in to a town where the asphalt would offer a solid carpet so “death can’t come out of the ground and creep around your ankles.” Snow is “white betrayal” that steals the footprints of those who try to flee. An archaeologist of language, Müller excavates words to determine their provenance and their potential; the German for “apricot” rhymes with “caress” but an apricot tree in Germany itself (Müller fled Romania in 1987) offers only the bitter after-taste of youth.
We have all internalised the shock of Sarajevo; but the sustained psychological torture of life under Ceausescu should be as vivid in our collective memory. Here love was your enemy; networks of kith and kin were consistently “turned.” Refusing to collaborate with the secret police, Müller was branded an “informer.” She lost her job in a tractor factory, and her friends, too. Across each of these essays we hear how menial tasks and hard labour stopped the head thinking but Müller reminds us that an imagination enraged by memory remains, thankfully, untrammelled.