NEW YORK (Reuters) - Writer Herta Müller went from being a teacher who lost her job and lived under constant threat for refusing to cooperate with former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s secret police, to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009.
Müller, 58, has lived in Berlin since emigrating from her native Romania in 1987, but the suffering of people living under dictatorships is never far from her mind - or her writing.
In her latest novel, “The Hunger Angel,” Müller tells the story of 17-year-old Leo Auberg, an ethnically Saxon Romanian who is coming to terms with his homosexuality in rural Romania in 1945.
His life is interrupted when Soviet soldiers send him to a labor camp over the border, where he witnesses his fellow villagers be corrupted by the circumstances, and tries to preserve the better facets of himself.
Müller spoke with Reuters during her U.S. tour about the book and life under totalitarian regimes.
Q: You lived under a draconian regime in Ceaucescu’s Romania, and before that your mother was deported to a Soviet labor camp in 1945, just like Leo. How much of the book is based on your own experiences, and those of people close to you?
A: “Most of the things I know are from Oskar Pastior, the poet. He’s the protagonist under the name of Leo. That’s really the reason why the book’s protagonist was a gay man. He told me so much that my mother’s experiences slipped into the periphery, because my mother didn’t tell me that much ... I also read a lot about the subject - lots of books by people who just wrote down their experiences.
“Most were not high literature, just personal accounts often published by small publishing houses or by the authors themselves. I read one book specifically about the women in the gulag because that was something Oskar couldn’t really tell me anything about.”
Q: In addition to Oskar, you have heard and read many accounts of surviving the types of suffering you write about in “The Hunger Angel.” Did you find any commonalities emerging from these stories?
A: “It seems to be something very individual. Everyone had their own methods to deal with hardship. For example, in Pastior’s case, it was his grandmother saying ‘I know you will come back’ that kept him going (also for Leo in the novel). My mother probably prayed, other people sang. Everybody seems to have had their own way of holding on to life.”
Q: In the book, Leo talks about how people lose parts of themselves under such adverse circumstances - even the qualities that they think are immutable parts of their cores. Do you think there are any human qualities or habits that remain constant, regardless of circumstances?
A: “Again, I think it’s a matter of individual strategies, but Pastior said that in the camp, it was the intellectuals who lost their humanity first because they depend on a more complicated construction (of morality and the world) that doesn’t function anymore when civilization breaks down.
“Simple people will just say, ‘This is all right, this is not all right, this is not how things should be done.’ This type of black-and-white morality is much more effective in a situation like that, much more effective than the complicated, intellectual form of morality ... In every dictatorship, a large number of intellectuals take part in the government’s crimes.”
Q: In this book everyday objects play a large role in the story. What role do objects play in people’s experiences and in the way we define our existences?
A: “I believe that beyond writing, physical objects play a very important part in life, and we define ourselves through objects. When we make distinctions between rich and poor, the rich are the ones who have many or even too many objects. We have these categories that are based on objects. In the end, our status is defined by what we own.
“In the camp, you have nothing, and on top of it you have been disowned as a person because of the whole militarized structure. There’s nothing but orders. In that context, personal objects become very valuable, like the silk scarf Leo had brought from home. We always define ourselves through objects, but when we have them, it’s so self-evident that we don’t think about.
“For refugees and people who have to flee, all of sudden they don’t have anything anymore. When everything is taken away from them or they have to leave it behind, then they really notice that they have nothing anymore.”
Q: What do you hope readers will get out of your book that can be applied to the present world?
A: “I do hope they’ll get something, because I’ve learned a lot from other people’s books. When you live in a dictatorship, you always ask yourself, how did it get here? How did it happen that everybody has so much fear? With that in mind, I’ve read a lot of literature and non-fiction books because I wanted to know how this works...
“My hope is that if you read my book, you will learn something about how dictatorships work. Living in a democracy, it can’t hurt to do that.”
Q: You have won many awards for your writing, most notably the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009. Do you feel any pressure to outdo yourself?
A: “Every award is something outside of me, and outside of my writing. Whether it’s the Nobel Prize or any other prize, it doesn’t help me with writing whatsoever. When I’m writing, it’s the farthest thing from my mind. I don’t really feel any pressure because I don’t owe anything to anybody except myself, because I cannot do anything but what I’m doing. That’s enough pressure, otherwise I can’t bear it. I can’t write for others when I write. It has to be for me.”
Reporting By Andrea Burzynski; editing by Patricia Reaney