Herta Muller: “Cursing in German is not as enjoyable as cursing in Romanian, because the vocabulary won’t help you”

Herta Muller: “Cursing in German is not as enjoyable as cursing in Romanian, because the vocabulary won’t help you”

Răzvan Chiruţă

“I have always felt insecure about language,” stated Herta Muller, the writer who received in 2009 the Nobel Prize for Literature, at the press conference organised yesterday on the occasion of her participation in the Festival of Literature and Translation (FILIT).

“When I was a child, I only spoke the dialect of my Swabian village. Later on, at kindergarten and in school, I had to learn standard German, which is quite different from the dialect. And I was always making mistakes. Then came the Romanian language, but in my village the only Romanians were the policeman and the doctor, and I wanted nothing to do with them,” the author told the audience. When she went to high-school, she could not speak Romanian at all. “So I had to learn it and I learned it in the street and in everyday life. I had already started to read books in German and, due to the fact that I learned Romanian so late, I came to realise the differences between the two languages in sensuality, metaphors, superstition, in all the areas that use a poetic language. Cursing in German is not as enjoyable as cursing in Romanian, because the vocabulary won’t help you,” Herta Muller said jokingly.

Therefore, to the German writer of Romanian origin, the two languages have always felt somewhat foreign. “It seemed to me I borrowed them, that they did not belong to me at all. I am given something on loan, I have to use it, but it is not mine. And this feeling has stayed with me to this day. Especially that there are big differences between the two languages, German and Romanian, the moon is of the feminine gender in Romanian, whereas in German it is of the masculine gender. So all fairy tales have a completely different meaning. You’re dealing with a man in German, and with a woman in the Romanian language. And there are dozens of examples of this kind,” pointed out Herta Muller.

Being asked whether celebrity had changed her in any way after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, the writer answered that, for her, celebrity is an abstract issue that she never thinks about. “I think I would have to have a very simple structure to allow myself to be overwhelmed by such things. There are things that happen outside me and they happen as a reaction to what I’ve done. So, anyway, it’s not me that is famous – if we must use this word – but rather the things I’ve produced that are famous, my books. Sometimes, of course, I have to live with the idea, that’s why there are so many people here (at the press conference, editor’s note) And this has happened to me more often after I received the prize. But I am the same person as ever and I have no reason to change,” added Herta Muller.

Moreover, the author explained that even her way of writing books hasn’t changed: “I’m not thinking constantly about the prize”. “I don’t even remember it. I have a normal life. At home I do all the things that everyone does. If I write, I have the same problems I used to have before, I try my best to write well and I there is the same risk of failing and the same chance of succeeding as before.” Herta Muller added that, for instance, her presence at a press conference such as the one taking place yesterday at the Pogor Museum is not characteristic of her. “I do what I believe I have to do, I am not an actress. What I’m doing now has no connection to my trade. Right now I am playing a part, I not a writer here,” Herta Muller underlined.

“It was more comfortable for the intellectuals not to write collective letters of protest”

The author said that Romania is, for her, a country she does not hate, but one she does not miss, either. “The earth feels the same everywhere. If I step on Romanian land, my sole doesn’t itch from either pain or pleasure,” the writer answered to the question about what it felt like to tread on Romanian land. “Of course, Romania is the country where I lived over 30 years, and it does have its place on a list of several countries, it is not just another country, because it is connected to my biography. I moved away from Romania because I had to. When I left Romania, Ceauşescu remained in power for another three years and I continued to receive death threats even in Berlin. I couldn’t come here, so I did away with homesickness and I never even had the idea of suffering from homesickness. I said: «They’ve kicked me out, I’ve slammed the door». It was mutual.”  The writer remembered, for instance, that at the time she was questioned by the secret police she felt very lonely and abandoned by her Romanian colleagues. “The biggest problem when you are pursued by a regime is loneliness. Everyone is shitting themselves, afraid that might be seen with you and get into the crosshairs of the repression machine. I’ve been betrayed thousands of times by very normal people, by my colleagues. But in a way I belong to this country. And this is a very normal and rational process. I am not sentimental, I do not hate, but I do see things they way they were,” the writer answered.

Despite this, Herta Muller says she cannot forget the lack of reaction of the Romanian people, of both workers and intellectuals, against the regime imposed by Nicolae Ceauşescu. “It was more comfortable for the intellectuals not to write collective letters of protest. And maybe if more such letters had existed, signed by thousands of people, things would have looked differently. I’m looking at other countries’ experience. It wasn’t just Romania that was a socialist country with a dictatorship, all Eastern European countries were under dictatorships. But I look at Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. There are differences, and they are differences in moral standing,” the German writer pointed out.

She used as an example Poland’s case, saying that what happened in Romania cold not have happened in Poland, because the population would not put up with it. And this style of making compromises is still valid today in some areas. “If you look at Russia, Putin is already becoming a dictator, they have the cult of personality and moving towards something we’re familiar with from our past life. But the population is happy because they got Crimeea. People are not the same everywhere and this has to do, probably, with cultural issues, with tradition, mentality,” Herta Muller explained.

The writer wanted to make it clear that she does not consider herself as being better than the rest of the Romanians because she stood up against ate regime, but the others’ lack of reaction has saddened her. “It hurt to see that people accept so much, although their lives have been stolen from them.”