Herta Müller rarely gets the exposure she deserves - on either side of the Atlantic. Which is a shame, since Herta Müller is the most important novelist writing in German today. Why, despite a Nobel Prize for Literature, the lack of media interest in Herta Müller? In part, because she is disliked by both the Left and Right in Germany. Herta Müller writes with precision and visionary power about a brutal totalitarian system which she lived in and many in Germany seem to long for. She often reminds me of Kafka. But Kafka was writing about a world that was becoming - gestating - while Müller writes about a world that was and that is. In English we have the expression "he/she doesn't mince words." Herta Müller "mints" words - she has her own vocabulary - a dictionary of terror - that grew out the isolated Banat Swabian community where she was raised. Her inventiveness with language recalls the word play of fellow (German-speaking) Romanian - the great poet Paul Celan.
So I was delighted when Herta Müller appeared recently in the New York Times Book Review section to discuss her preferences for writers and books. Not surprisingly, she singles out writers who used their craft and their words to describe and combat tyranny:
"If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
There was no single book. But I learned from Eugen Kogon’s “The SS State” and Victor Klemperer’s “The Language of the Third Reich” the kind of country I was living in. In reading about the Nazis’ misuse of language, I learned how the Ceausescu dictatorship twisted language to their ends.
If you could require the American president to read one book, what would it be? The German prime minister?
Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time.” Anyone who wants to understand Russia should read this book. It describes the impact of Stalinism and Communism up to the present day, the paralyzing effect on society and the servility of the population that enables people like Putin to destroy all attempts at democratization."
Svetlana Alexievich is already on my reading list, but in the interview Herta Müller mentions the Romanian writer Max Blecher, who wrote only in Romanian. One of his novels, Inimi cicatrizate, was translated into German as Vernarbte Herzen and is available on Amazon.de.