I just wonder if, as an American and English speaker only, I’m somehow missing out on a lot of erstwhile magnificent literature because it isn’t translated into my mother tongue, and if this is so, why?
— Comment on Christian Science Monitor Website, October 8, 2009.
English-speaking audiences are baffled: who is Herta Müller, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature? Consider the parochial Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph (October 9, 2009), who is more baffled than most at the Nobel Prize committee’s transcript extolling the Romanian-German depictions of the “landscape of the dispossessed” with “the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose”. Rahim assumes a communion with those who would prefer to think of obvious winners, a category that is, of its own accord, fairly meaningless. “The Nobel is an odd award. Its winners over the years have encompassed deserved winners (TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, VS Naipaul), and some rather bizarre choices.”
Cited is, perhaps rightly, Winston Churchill in 1953, who made it a point to revise and fight history as its commander, its player. He may have had a free-flowing style, but such prowess was, at times, exaggerated. An admission is grudgingly made by the Telegraph writer on this year’s winner: she is not obscure. She has received dozens of literary prizes, among them the Dublin-based IMPAC Prize. Then comes the linguistic prejudice, the jaundiced remark. “Despite IMPAC, Müller has not yet achieved much recognition in the English-speaking world.” For a Scandinavian prize, this is a curious sentiment. For the English speaker, it has to be English, imperial, colonial, or something touched by the sacred tongue that Shakespeare spake. Nothing else would seem to matter.
A sense about why the prize would not be inappropriate for Müller can be gathered from her background. Marjorie Kehe, of the Christian Science Monitor (Oct 8), was at least privy to that. “On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the choice of Herta Müller as 106th winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature seems particularly appropriate.” Besides, given such jury members as Horace Engdahl, who last year openly described American writing as being “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture”, a sort of dialogue outside the great fields of literature, the choice is less predictable as it might seem.
Milan Kundera tells us that the novelist conveys experience as its interpreter. With that in mind, we find Müller, Romanian-German, prolific and meaningful in articulating the experiences of the tormented cosmopolitan, where races and cultures fight mortal battles over identities and power. The themes of her writings are those that would intrigue any prize committee: prejudice, corruption, a large canvass of the world to interpret the nasty smallness of communities. Her work focuses on the debilitating effects of the totalitarian machine, the attrition of surveillance and intrusion waged by the Romanian dictatorship against the world of the private and personal. Her works had been banned in Romania, but celebrated in the Teutonic tongue. But Herztier (The Land of Green Plums) is the magical, penetrating study of five Romanian youths labouring under the Ceausescu regime that offers the image of unripe fruit plucked by avaricious Romanian policemen.
Her politics and views were heartily shaped by a commitment to Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of anti-Ceausescu enthusiasts of Romanian-German background. Stalin may have died in 1953, remembers Müller, who was born that year, but “he continued living for years”. Her public denunciation of the Romanian regime at the Frankfurt book fair in the 1980s led to her emigration with her husband to the West in 1987. Her anti-totalitarian credentials are, at the very least, impeccable in that regard.
We can always complain about such awards, which are often political and devoid of a shroud of considered objectivity. One is left balancing considerations, be they political or personal, especially when the contender tends to be a dominant one. (What, a few are murmuring, has happened to Amos Oz? Booking agency Ladbrokes had put odds of 4/1 that he might win.) Patrick White, Australia’s only winner of that award, had to bide his time as Heinrich Böll, Pablo Neruda and Alexander Solzhenitsyn won the accolade. One should not really be taking bets on these things.
This raises the question as to why we should even have such awards. The peace prize has little to do with peace, since many awards have been awarded to those who have little stake in winning it, let alone keeping it. One might argue that literature similarly suffers. At times, the judges seem less concerned about the quality of the writing than the delicate procedure of selection. In terms of literature, hysterical opinions are voiced when cultural balance is not maintained. Outside Europe, one might be upset with the recent recipients. But in the end, Müller has and is fulfilling the novelist’s crucial role to inform and transcend the burdens of crushing orthodoxies. May her works be noisily promoted and widely disseminated in translation.
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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.