Interviews

Herta Müller, The Art of Fiction No. 225

Interviewed by Philip Boehm

In awarding Herta Müller the 2009 Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy praised the author “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

This is a landscape with which she is all too familiar. Müller was born in 1953 in Nitzkydorf, a small German­speaking village in the Romanian Banat. After World War I and the breakup of the Austro­Hungarian Empire, the region came under the control of an enlarged Kingdom of Romania. In 1940 Ion Antonescu’s Fascist government entered a formal alliance with the Third Reich, and many ethnic Germans—including Müller’s father—signed up to serve with the German forces. By mid­ 1944, the Red Army had advanced deep into the country: Antonescu’s government was overthrown, and the new regime surrendered to the Soviets. In January 1945, Stalin deported all Germans living in Romania between seventeen and forty­five years of age to forced­labor camps in the Soviet Union. Müller’s mother was among the deportees.

Under the Communists, farms in Romania were collectivized, lands and businesses were seized by the state, and citizens lived under surveillance by the secret police (the Securitate). The harassment of minorities (Hungarian, German, and Jewish) continued into the 1980s. In the late seventies, Müller was approached by the Securitate but refused to cooperate as an informer. For this she was dismissed from her job and subjected to various forms of persecution, including censorship, repeated interrogations, and extreme invasion of privacy.

In response to this oppression, Müller turned to writing. Her first book, Niederungen (Nadirs), a collection of stories, appeared in censored form in Romania in 1982; the first complete edition was published two years later in Berlin. In 1987, she was finally allowed to leave Romania with her mother, and eventually settled in Berlin. Other books followed, notably Herztier (1994), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (1997), and Atemschaukel (2009)—published in English, respectively, as The Land of Green Plums (1996), The Appointment (2001), and The Hunger Angel (2012).

As part of the launch of this last title, Müller traveled to the United States for a series of readings where she read from the original German and I from my English translation. The bulk of this interview was conducted, in German, between these readings—in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Like her prose, Müller exudes energy of very high voltage, which peaks as she concentrates before stepping onstage to read. The cigarettes she chainsmokes seem less a calming habit than a necessary conduit, fuses to absorb excess electricity. Although her work had been winning awards for years in Germany and other European countries, the Nobel brought her a celebrity status that has amplified her voice on behalf of certain causes, but it is a status with which she is by no means fully comfortable.

Philip Boehm

INTERVIEWER

Was yours a family of farmers in Nitzkydorf?

MÜLLER

My grandfather was very wealthy. He owned a lot of land and also a general­goods store. He was a grain merchant, and every month he traveled to Vienna on business.

INTERVIEWER

Was his grain business mostly wheat?

MÜLLER

Mostly wheat and corn. The house where I grew up had a big grain elevator on the roof, four stories high. But then after 1945, everything was taken away and my family didn’t own a thing. After that, the elevator just stood there empty.

INTERVIEWER

And what about his store?

MÜLLER

The store had all sorts of things. My mother worked there and so did my grandmother, until the socialists took it all away. Then they were moved to a collective farm. My grandfather never got over the fact that the state had taken what he’d worked for his whole life. And as a result he could never believe in the state. On top of that, they sent him to a camp—not for a long time, and the camp was in Romania and not in Russia, but still. My grandfather had served in the First World War, with the Austrians. And so had his horses. Back then they used to draft horses as well as people. Grandfather even had a death notice for the horses, all carefully filled out. They even listed where the horse had fallen. When I heard that, I said it was nonsense. Because, of course, in the dark time under Stalin and during the Second World War, so many people vanished without a trace and never came back. No documents of any kind. In the old days, they filled out death certificates for horses, but later on they didn’t send anything at all when people died or disappeared.

INTERVIEWER

They took his land and had him interned because he was a kulak?

MÜLLER

And I had to write that down every time I filled out a form—that my grandfather was a kulak. Because in addition to taking all your property, they branded you as a member of the exploiting class.

INTERVIEWER

Did everyone at home speak German?

MÜLLER

In the German villages the people spoke German, in the Hungarian villages they spoke Hungarian, in the Serbian villages they spoke Serbian. The people didn’t mix—each group had its own language, its own religion, its own holidays, its own way of dressing. Even among the Germans, the dialect varied from village to village.

INTERVIEWER

Did your family speak High German as well as dialect?

MÜLLER

My grandfather did, because of the business. But my grandmother only spoke dialect. They also spoke perfect Hungarian. When they grew up, the village was part of the Austro­Hungarian Empire, and in this region the Hungarians pressured people to assimilate. As a result, my grandparents went to a Hungarian school. So whatever they had to learn by rote—such as arithmetic—they could only do in Hungarian. But by the time the socialists took over, my grandparents were already sixty years old, and so they never learned Romanian at all.

INTERVIEWER

How about your school?

MÜLLER

At first I had a very hard time because the dialect was so different from the High German they were teaching. We were never really sure if some of our dialect words weren’t sneaking in when they weren’t supposed to. But at the same time they often sounded exactly alike. For example, the word for bread is the same word in both cases—Brot. But that didn’t sound right to me. Surely it should sound different in High German, so I’d say something like Brat just because I thought that sounded more like High German ought to sound. So the result was this permanent insecurity. I never completely believed that any one language was really my own. I had the impression they all belonged to other people, that it was something I had on loan. And this feeling was reinforced at every turn, because they never let you forget you were a minority. On every single questionnaire I had to write down that I was part of the German minority. Although officially we weren’t called a minority but a “coinhabiting nationality”—as though we were graciously being allowed to live with the others. As if our own right to be there was somehow in doubt. And of course that was absurd, considering that these people had been living in the same place for three hundred years.

INTERVIEWER

As if you were a guest in your own country.

MÜLLER

When they were interrogating me, the secret police often said, Don’t forget that the bread you eat is Romanian. And I would answer, Yes, that’s true now, because my grandfather had everything taken away. But before that he had so much grain that he would have easily had enough bread for fifty, sixty, seventy years. So since they took all of that away, then of course today I have no choice, I eat Romanian bread. Well, whenever I said that, it really made them furious. And they’d tell me that if I didn’t like the Romanian people—they always said “people” and not “regime”—then I should go to the West, to my fascist friends. They were always making insinuations like that. And of course, for foreign­policy reasons, they would point fingers at the minorities whenever it suited them, even though Romania under Antonescu was allied with Hitler, and Romanian troops fought right alongside the Germans at Stalingrad. That made it all especially perfidious. And they treated the Hungarians the same way—denying their own history and singling out the others. And that was a bitter experience for the minorities, because they knew the truth—they knew how things were.

INTERVIEWER

And all the more bitter since the party steering things was ostensibly the party of farmers as well as workers.

MÜLLER

Except by then they were no longer farmers working their own land but laborers on a collective farm. My mother was sent to work fields that had once belonged to her family. And when she came home in the evening, my grandfather would ask her where she’d been and she’d say this place or that, more often than not it was one of his fields. Then he’d ask her what was being planted there. At that point my mother told him to stop asking questions, that land no longer belongs to us.

INTERVIEWER

Was the village very Catholic?

MÜLLER

Just like most of the German and Hungarian villages. But my parents weren’t religious at all. People didn’t take the priest too seriously, and of course it must have been a very hard situation for the village priests. They had a very lonely life. First on account of celibacy. They didn’t have any families—usually just a cook, but otherwise they lived alone. And they came from somewhere else, so they were strangers in the village. Most of them drank, many were alcoholics, and it didn’t exactly improve their reputation when a priest stumbled off the ladder while picking linden blossoms. Still, we all went to catechism class, mostly because it was forbidden by the state.

INTERVIEWER

Was the church service in German or Latin?

MÜLLER

German. They’d say things like God is everywhere, that He’s in all things. So that meant He was also inside a door or a table, or in the plants. And I thought that all these things were watching me. And He was probably even inside me since I’m material as well, so He was probably watching me from the inside, too. That was uncanny. And very frightening. When you’re a child, it can be very scary if you take those things seriously. It feels like a threat. So no matter what I was doing—peeling a potato, for instance—I always thought that God was watching me. And I always wondered, Does He approve? Am I peeling it the right way? Or when I was doing chores—every weekend I had to clean the whole house and was supposed to mop the floor twice, first wet and then dry. But since my mother was at work and my grandparents were somewhere in the garden and no one could see me, I could have easily cut corners and only done it once. But I was always afraid that God would see me. And that He knew everything. And that He’d do something to me or somehow let my mother know. Who knew what might happen.

Another thing they said in church was that dead people were in heaven. So I looked up and that’s what I saw. I looked at the clouds and thought I saw a man or a woman who’d lived nearby, that they were running back and forth, that God was moving them this way and that. Or in the church, during Communion, when the priest talked about the blood of Christ and the body of Christ, and then he’d drink his wine—I thought that was completely crazy. Because I had to butcher chickens once or twice a week, and I’d seen plenty of blood, and as far as I was concerned it was nothing like the wine the priest was drinking. And now and then I’d go inside the church and there’d be a giant plaster statue of the Holy Virgin Mother Mary on the altar, and she was wearing a light blue mantle, and her heart was on the outside, on top of her dress. One time I was there with my grandmother, and I told her that Mary’s heart was a watermelon that had been cut open, because the drops of blood were black like watermelon seeds.

INTERVIEWER

And what did she say to that?

MÜLLER

She said you may be right, but you can’t ever say that to anyone.

INTERVIEWER

That was clever.

MÜLLER

But somehow she was afraid. And I was scared, too. I always thought I was going to disgrace myself somehow. And then the priest was always telling us what we weren’t allowed to do. We couldn’t wear makeup, for instance—it was all so prudish. The priest would tell us things like lipstick was made from the blood of fleas. For children that can be scary. So I had this sense that everything was always forbidden. And that combined with the sense that God was always watching me. And of course in the village, everybody knew everything about everybody else anyway. So that was my first totalitarian world—the village and the church.

INTERVIEWER

And confession on top of that.

MÜLLER

I thought it was absurd. You go to confession and you have to list all your sins, all your lies. Anything unchaste—that was always the big thing—that you’d thought or read or seen or listened to. But we had dogs mating right there on the street, and on the farm chickens were constantly mating with roosters. And you watched that because, after all, it was fascinating. But how was any­ body going to keep track? I mean, who knows how much you’d done in all the months that had passed since the last confession. So when the priest asked how many times, you just made up a number. And right there you see how people start to develop a sense of expediency, an opportunistic way of thinking. The children made deals with each other. Let’s say that I’ll tell him twenty times and you tell him twenty­five. Because you didn’t want to have too many things to report but you didn’t want to have too few either. So instead of feel­ ing any sense of relief, I felt worse afterward because I’d just told the biggest lie of all—and all because I had no choice. I’d lied to the priest and he was the representative of God so I’d actually lied to God and not just to my mother or my grandmother or the neighbors—my goodness, what’s going to happen now? If you take religion seriously, then you’re bound to run into problems. It was an abstract system of oppression, abstract in the sense that you weren’t punished in any palpable way—God never said anything, He never yelled at me, but somehow He was always there. And you always had this sense that sooner or later something was bound to happen. And for that reason, I found faith scary and oppressive and in opposition to every individual freedom.

INTERVIEWER

And when you were older?

MÜLLER

When I moved to the city I thought, God isn’t here. And later, I had so much fear, I was being harassed so much, I was afraid they were going to kill me. So where is God? Let Him stay where He is, I don’t need Him anymore, I’m going to look after myself. He’ll do what He wants and so will I. And with that, the problem was solved.

INTERVIEWER

Were your parents very strict?

MÜLLER

They were strict, but that was normal. As a child, I had to work all the time, help with everything inside the house and outside in the field. I had to take the cows down to the valley, near the river, and spend the whole day alone with them.

INTERVIEWER

How many cows were there?

MÜLLER

Usually five or six.

INTERVIEWER

Did you sing when you were alone like that?

MÜLLER

Little songs we learned in kindergarten, things like “Ein Männlein steht im Walde.” But I also talked to myself a lot, and with the plants. I was convinced I could speak with everything.

INTERVIEWER

Did you talk to God?

MÜLLER

I wouldn’t have dared to. Even back then, I didn’t want to get more involved. He sees enough as it is, I thought. And I had my hands full just watching the cows. I had to make sure they didn’t get into the fields because the fields belonged to the state. And sometimes if the cows hadn’t eaten, they’d go crazy and start running all around. Not all the cows in Romania were like what people saw on TV. Most of them were pretty scrawny, but Ceausescu had this herd of fattened cattle they would ship in advance to some village in the countryside. Then the TV would come and take pictures of him with the fat cows grazing in the background. But I had to be very careful that the ones I was watching didn’t get into the field or else my parents would have had to pay a fine they couldn’t afford. And then in the evening I would lead the cows back to the village.

INTERVIEWER

In your contribution to the Nobel symposium on witness literature, you wrote about waiting for the trains to pass.

MÜLLER

I didn’t have a watch, so I had to wait for the fourth train to pass through the valley before I took the cows home. By then it was eight o’clock—I had spent all day in the valley. I needed to watch the cows, but the cows didn’t need me at all. They had their everyday life and grazed away and weren’t interested in me in the least. They knew exactly who they were—but what about me? I’d look at my hands and feet and wonder what I really was. What material was I made of ? Obviously something different than the cows or the plants. And being so different was hard for me. I’d look at the plants and animals and think to myself, They have a good life, they know how to live. So I tried to get closer. I talked to the plants, I would taste them and I knew what each one tasted like. I ate every weed I could find, thinking that once I’d tasted the plant I would be a little closer to it and that I could change into something else, that I could change my flesh, my skin into something that was more like the plant so that it would accept me. Of course, that was really just my loneliness, which was compounded by the worries I had with looking after the cows. So I studied the plants, I picked the flowers and paired them up so they could get married. Whatever I knew people did, I thought the plants did, too. I was convinced that they had eyes and that they moved at night and that the linden tree near our house visited the linden tree in the village.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written about making up new names for plants as well. Like thornrib or needleneck instead of milk thistle.

MÜLLER

Because I didn’t feel the plant listened to the name milk thistle. So I tried out other names.

Plant names are a complicated thing. The most beautiful names are the folk names, the ones the peasants use, the ones people give to the plants because of how they look or what they do. The scientific names seem so remote. It’s sad but I’ve even been to florists in Berlin where they don’t know the simplest plant names. They’ll have a sign out that says Herbarium coloricum, or something else that doesn’t mean much, but the ones I know from the country are just called things like phlox or Froschgoscherl.

INTERVIEWER

We call it phlox, too. The other is snapdragon in English, but I see it’s “frog’s mouth” in your dialect.

MÜLLER

Or Löwenmäulchen in German.

INTERVIEWER

“Lion’s mouth”—or really, “little lion’s mouth.” But when you made up your own names—

MÜLLER

When I made up my own names, it was another attempt to get closer to the plants, because they knew how to live and I didn’t. But it was a gap I couldn’t overcome. The same holds true for landscapes. I’ve never really admired landscapes, I’ve just observed them. I’ve always had the impression that they’re just too vast—they make me feel lost. I think there are two basic ways to experience landscape. Some people feel secure, protected. There are people who stand on a mountaintop and act like it all belongs to them. But I can’t stand on top of a mountain and look down at the valleys and tell myself how magnificent it all is. I always feel afraid, forlorn. I have the sense that the landscape is devouring me. It makes me feel small, like I’m nothing more than an ant. I know that the trees are very old, that the stones last forever, that the water never stops flowing. And I realize I have this horribly short amount of time inside my body and that my body is just on loan. And that compared to everything around us, our lives are just a moment. It’s this feeling of transience, mortality. As a child I didn’t have any word for it, but I sensed it even then, and it made me afraid. The cornfields, the way they stretched on and on. Under socialism, after everything was collectivized, the fields were gigantic—once you were in them, you felt you could never get out. I always thought that by the time I made it across, I’d be an old woman, ancient.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a chapter in The Hunger Angel where Leo is sent to work on a kolkhoz for a day, and he has to walk a long ways across the steppe. “The wind pushed against me, the entire steppe streamed into me, urging me to collapse because I was so thin and it was so greedy.”

MÜLLER

For me, these vast landscapes have always been intimidating.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel more comfortable in the city, or did the cityscape bring a different sense of oppression?

MÜLLER

The city had different fears—the secret police. There were plants there as well, and I’ve often said that certain plants were in collusion with the people in power—they had defected to the state. Like arborvitae and fir trees and all the evergreens that were planted around the official institutions, the so-called living fences. And there were also socialist flowers.

INTERVIEWER

When I lived in Poland, we never bought red carnations because they were always used for state functions.

MÜLLER

I still can’t stand the sight of them. Or gladioli. Whenever there was a funeral or a burial of some high-ranking socialist functionary, they always had the same flowers, because those were the flowers that lasted the longest. But I’ve always liked the flowers that wilt quickly, like pansies or lily of the valley or dahlias or phlox, and that don’t let themselves be put to ill use. It’s the same with people—the people who get put to ill use are the ones whose character lends itself to that. People who don’t have those traits to begin with can’t be misused that way. Just like if the carnations and gladioli wilted more quickly, then they wouldn’t wind up inside the wreaths for the party bosses who had just died. But the flowers in the little gardens, the ones that bloom for just a short time—those were the plants of the powerless.

You know you start to get a little kooky when you live so long in a dictatorship.

INTERVIEWER

Everything begins to have connotations.

MÜLLER

And you start dividing everything up into what’s on my side and what’s on the side of the state. Even the beach. I used to think to myself, How can the sun be such a traitor? Because Ceauşescu had these villas on the Black Sea, whole stretches of the coastline would be cordoned off when he was there. Or even when he wasn’t, nobody could go there, and I always thought, Why is the sun doing that for him, why is it offering him these beautiful sunsets, doesn’t it see who it’s dealing with, couldn’t it simply refuse and say, I’m not going to do this for him anymore?

But I think this is a common theme in books about oppression. In Jorge Semprún, for example. People in the worst situations wonder how their surroundings can simply look on like that, so indifferent to all the human suffering. And if the oppression is taking place outside under open skies—like a concentration camp—then the whole landscape can seem to be an accomplice.

INTERVIEWER

It’s related to that sense you had as a child, where everything is animated, where you thought that objects flew around at night. But instead of imagining plants getting married, the tendency is to ascribe darker motives to the surroundings.

MÜLLER

Every object becomes steeped with meaning. But the meanings change with the experience of the viewer

INTERVIEWER

And in rare moments, a part of the natural world can offer solace. Like the fir branches for Leo in The Hunger Angel.

MÜLLER

Once I was with Oskar Pastior in South Tyrol, and I started complaining about all the fir trees, that they don’t do anything, that they’re boring and arrogant, and why on earth do people bring that into their homes at Christmas. But he looked at me and said I shouldn’t say anything bad about fir trees. And then he told me about how, when he was in the camp practically dead from starvation and in utter despair, he put together a Christmas tree using bits of wire and green wool, and that that tree had been his last tie to civilization. You don’t have to believe in Christmas, he said, but you still can believe in fir trees. In fact, you have to.

INTERVIEWER

And that happens in The Hunger Angel. But first he encounters a real fir tree and tries to sneak the branches into the camp. Only, the guards confiscate the branches and use them for a broom, and Leo sees that. And in his voice you write, “In three days it would be Christmas—a word that puts green fir trees in rooms.” That’s a fascinating sentence, because you have the actual object—the fir branches—and the word Christmas, and then the reconstruction of a Christmas tree with wire and yarn that is invested with a reality all its own. And this is exactly what you do in your books. In a way, it’s that same sense you had as a child, when you would invent words to fit the world you were experiencing. But even the words you made up didn’t always fit.

MÜLLER

And that made the gap between me and the things more clear.

INTERVIEWER

As well as the gap between language and the things it wants to describe.

MÜLLER

The words have their own truth, and that comes from how they sound. But they aren’t the same as the things themselves, there’s never a perfect match.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also written about the inadequacy of language, that we don’t always think in words, that speech does not cover our innermost realms. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you look for ways to describe what’s lurking behind and between the words. And very often, this is simply silence. There’s another scene in The Hunger Angel where Leo’s grandfather is staring at a calf, devouring it with his eyes, and in the book there is this word Augenhunger—“eye hunger.” Is there also such a thing as word hunger?

MÜLLER

It’s the words that are hungry. I’m not hungry for words, but they have a hunger of their own. They want to consume what I have experienced, and I have to make sure that they do that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you hear sentences in your head before you set them down?

MÜLLER

I don’t hear any sentences in my head, but while I’m writing I have to see everything I’ve written. I see the sentence. And I hear it. I also read it out loud.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read everything out loud?

MÜLLER

Everything. For the rhythm—because if it doesn’t sound right out loud, then the sentence isn’t working. That means something’s wrong. I always have to hear this rhythm, it’s the only way to check if the words are right. And the crazy thing is that the more surreal a text is, the more closely it has to correspond to reality. Otherwise it won’t work. Prose like that always turns out badly—kitsch. Many people have a hard time believing it, but surreal scenes have to be checked against reality with millimeter precision, otherwise they don’t function at all, and the text is completely unusable. The surreal can only work if it becomes reality. So it has to be proofed against reality and built up according to realistic structures.

INTERVIEWER

Do you allow the sentences to lead you once you have begun them?

MÜLLER

They know on their own what has to happen. The language knows where it has to wind up. I know what I want, but the sentence knows how I’ll get there. Even so, the language always has to be kept on a tight rein. And I work very slowly. I need a whole lot of time because I have to make many approaches. I write each book twenty times or so. At first, I need all these crutches, and I write a lot that’s superfluous. Later, when I’m far enough along—inside me, while I’m still searching—I cut out about a third of what I’ve written, because I don’t need it anymore. But then often I go back to the very first version, because evidently that’s the most authentic one and everything else proved unsatisfactory. And frequently I feel I won’t be able to pull it off. Language is so different from life. How am I supposed to fit the one into the other? How can I bring them together? There’s no such thing as one-to-one correspondence. First, I have to take everything apart. I start with a reality, but I have to completely demolish this reality. And then I use language to create something completely different. And if I’m lucky, it comes back together and the new language comes close again to the reality. But it’s a completely artificial process.

INTERVIEWER

Like Leo’s Christmas tree. And what you said in Stockholm, that, in writing, it is not a matter of trusting but rather of the honesty of the deceit—and one charged with enormous energy.

MÜLLER

Yes, and that can make you obsessed. And when people talk about the beauty of the text, that’s where it comes from—the fact that the language draws me in, so that I want to do it. But it also hurts, and that’s why I’m so afraid of writing. And I often wonder if I’ll be up to the task, if I can meet the responsibility of creating this language. But it’s also what you mentioned before—half of it is the silence. What gets said is one thing, but what isn’t said has to be there as well, it has to float along with what you’re writing. And you have to feel that, too.

INTERVIEWER

And this silence isn’t only inside the characters. It’s also between the characters and in the text itself. In The Land of Green Plums, you write, “The words in our mouths do as much damage as our feet on the grass. But so do our silences.”

MÜLLER

Silence is also a form of speaking. They’re exactly alike. It’s a basic component of language. We’re always selecting what we say and what we don’t. Why do we say one thing and not the other? And we do this instinctively, too, because no matter what we’re talking about, there’s more that doesn’t get said than does. And this isn’t always to hide things—it’s simply part of an instinctive selection in our speech. This selection varies from one person to the next, so that no matter how many people describe the same thing, the descriptions are different, the point of view is different. And even if there is a similar viewpoint, people make different choices as to what is said or not said. This was very clear to me, coming from the village, since the people there never said more than they absolutely needed to. When I was fifteen and went to the city, I was amazed at how much people talked and how much of that talk was pointless. And how much people talked about themselves—that was totally alien to me.

For me, silence had always been another form of communication. After all, you can tell so much just by looking at a person. At home we always knew about each other even if we didn’t talk about ourselves all the time. I encountered a lot of silence elsewhere as well. There was the silence that was self-imposed, because you could never say what you really thought.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean at home in the village?

MÜLLER

There was some of that in the village, but I really mean in the dictatorship generally. Because when you live in a dictatorship you learn that saying things can be dangerous, so you control what you say. Then there was the silence during interrogations—that was always very important. You always had to consider very carefully how much you were going to say and what you were going to tell them. You had to keep a balance. On the one hand, you didn’t want to say too much, you didn’t want them to think you knew something they didn’t, you didn’t want to trigger a question they wouldn’t otherwise ask. On the other hand, you had to say something, so the best thing was to answer a little bit, so they’d have to repeat the same question. It was always this careful calculation, each side lying in wait for the other, the interrogator studying the person being questioned, trying to see through you while you were trying to see through him, find out what he wanted, where he was heading, why he wanted to know that. There was a lot of keeping silent in all of that.

INTERVIEWER

Which we experience through the eyes of the protagonist in The Appointment. But were the interrogators generally capable of seeing through their victims?

MÜLLER

I don’t know. I’m not sure you can ever really see through a person—you might think you have, but maybe you haven’t. But these people were professionals, they’d studied psychology. I had friends who were interrogated, and each case was unique, each person was handled or harassed or blackmailed in a different way. The interrogators put their training to use, they knew the best way to drive a person to despair and how to make them afraid. I never saw through their methods, I was caught off guard every time. Each time, they came up with some new surprise you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. And in my case, there wasn’t anything to see through because my whole apartment had been bugged. I didn’t know it at the time—I only found out later, after the regime had collapsed—but they were listening to everything, my entire private life. That was something I couldn’t imagine, and I didn’t have the slightest inkling that they could see and hear me no matter where I went. I thought I was in my own home, that it was private, but it wasn’t private. At the time, it didn’t occur to me they’d be so interested in me—I wasn’t important enough for that. And besides, I thought Romania was too poor to buy expensive surveillance equipment, and they couldn’t possibly produce it themselves—nothing that came out of the domestic factories could have had that kind of quality. Naturally I was completely naive—of course they had equipment, because that’s exactly what the state chose to buy. People had to wait in line for food, but there was never a shortage of microphones.

INTERVIEWER

There’s yet another type of silence inside some of your characters. Kati Sentry in The Hunger Angel, for instance. She has a mental disability and very limited means of expression.

MÜLLER

But she says more than others. I always like short dialogues. And there are certain grammatical constructions I don’t like, such as present participles or the past perfect tense, all these complicated German forms, these towers of verbs, subjunctive for indirect speech and things like that. They’re all so cumbersome, so cold, these forms that push everything away from emotion. I always try to stick to the present, or at most the simple past. Everything else seems to me such dead weight. I think that’s also from the peasant language I grew up with.

INTERVIEWER

Laconic.

MÜLLER

And always direct. Also, the dialogues always have to have an edge. That probably comes from my background as well. People go for a long time without speaking, and then by the time they finally do say something it’s very urgent. It absolutely needs to be said, and there’s no time to waste on linguistic constructions. Most of the time it’s already too late—what gets said could have been said long before, but it wasn’t.

INTERVIEWER

And even if it’s too late—

MÜLLER

Then the sense of urgency is even greater.

INTERVIEWER

You also keep your punctuation to a minimum. No question marks, for instance.

MÜLLER

The sentences have no need of question marks. It’s clear from the way they’re written which ones are questions. You can tell from the syntax. So I don’t need question marks, or exclamation points. I find them completely unnecessary. They cause such a fuss and have no business there. Or quotation marks. It’s awful when the entire text is crammed with all these signs. After all, you can tell when there’s dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

And if at times we’re not sure whether a statement is uttered out loud or said internally, this can add to the tension.

MÜLLER

And all of this has to do with the way we spoke at home, the dialect we used. Later on, when I went to school in the city and had these friends, they all came from different villages and they all spoke different dialects. But we agreed that we’d only speak High German. They were all writers, and back then, in Romania, German was a kind of private language for us, and we had to pay attention that we spoke it correctly. So inside the group we insisted on not speaking dialect. Besides, there was already a literature written in dialect, and it was horribly reactionary. Not like, say, in Austria, where some writers use dialect in new ways, combining the local tradition with more contemporary ideas. For me, it had very bad associations—exactly what I wrote about in Nadirs—the ethnocentric focus, the support of the Nazis, the generally reactionary attitude tied up with the concept of “homeland.” I didn’t want to have anything to do with all that, and neither did anyone else in our group. No Heimat books, no Blut und Boden literature. Looking back, I think that for us it was a lot easier without all that conservative freight the others had to carry around, the expectations. People had no expectations at all from us. The Germans in Transylvania had an intellectual tradition that went back eight hundred years—they were always more conservative. But our group from Banat had just started reading and didn’t know a thing. And then we went ahead and wrote what we did, and that got the others all worked up. But we didn’t think twice about it. That’s why I really feel it can be very liberating not to come from a big tradition or from a home where you were fed things you probably won’t even like later on—things you then have to throw away in order to grow. I didn’t have to throw anything away, because I didn’t have anything to begin with.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t have books at home?

MÜLLER

Not even fairy tales. Occasionally I’d get something from school, when they handed out prizes for best students at the end of the year. But that was all socialist realism and nothing I enjoyed reading. Apart from that, there was only what we had from the priest.

But that was a good thing, I think. People often ask me what books I had at home, and I find the question strange. As if you couldn’t write unless you grew up in a home with a library, or parents with some degree of higher education. But really from a certain age on, our upbringing is up to each of us, we do it on our own. And just because the parents might provide a highly cultured milieu doesn’t mean the children will take advantage of it. Sometimes that has the opposite effect. I’ve seen cases where children from highly educated backgrounds don’t want to have anything to do with any intellectual life at all. Or where the parents fed their children too much literature, with the result that the child didn’t want to have anything to do with books ever again. For me it was the other way around. None of this was familiar, and I was so hungry. But first I had to discover it. And at one point I realized that literature was the continuation of what I’d done as a child—using my imagination. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but essentially I had been turning everything into literature, in my head, without knowing what literature is.

INTERVIEWER

Because you didn’t have anything else.

MÜLLER

It was an inner need, just so I could have some sense of security, to assert myself somehow, to find my place in the world, in my surroundings, in my loneliness. It was just like writing—I was all by myself, and no one was allowed to know what I was thinking, because if they had known they would have thought I was abnormal, and I didn’t want them to tell me I was crazy and send me to the doctor, and then have him tell me I had some kind of nervous disorder or devil knows what. It was always just my secret, and I never spoke about it with anyone, not anyone. But all along, I was creating a kind of literature in my head. And then all of a sudden I realized that this same thing existed printed on paper—that’s exactly what literature is. But I had to make it up all on my own.

INTERVIEWER

And was that the case with your friends from the Aktionsgruppe Banat?

MÜLLER

Their parents were farmers, too. And we often talked about this, about how we were starting from scratch. I think that’s why we wanted to create literature that was very unconventional and modern. Of course later on, after I’d gained some distance, I realized the dialect also has its good side—very beautiful words, highly metaphoric images, a wealth of superstitions and very poetic things—and I’ve drawn a lot on that, especially the words, which are often very whimsical. Words like Arschkappelmuster, which is really an insult, but a very lovable one.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still speak dialect with anyone?

MÜLLER

With my mother. And sometimes with people from the village, but I don’t see many of them. I’m not exactly popular with most of them. Because of Nadirs, they all spat on me, and so I couldn’t go back there. Even my mother was harassed, and my grandfather, because I’d written things about this village, and they were all offended. They accused me of fouling my own nest, as the Germans like to say. In their eyes, I was the devil, and I didn’t want to have anything more to do with them. So between the Romanian regime and this reaction from the Germans, I didn’t belong anywhere. You’re part of the minority, but the minority demonizes you and the government demonizes you, so where can you fit in? The most I had was a circle of five or six people. Still, at least there you knew you were among friends, and that was enough. And that wasn’t so abnormal either. That was just the way it turned out. Whenever people start talking about identity—and what a dry word that is—I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. It might be a good word for conferences, but it’s of absolutely no help to me. I never knew who I was or how I wanted to live in the world. I only knew what I didn’t want. I knew I didn’t want to be like the German minority or like the regime—I wanted to distance myself from all of that. So what I wound up being was really a result of what I didn’t want to be. But I still didn’t know what I wanted.

INTERVIEWER

Do you now?

MÜLLER

On the contrary. People think you’re bound to know exactly who you are and what you want, that you have some overarching, single-minded purpose in life. I find that absurd. As if we were each assembled from ideas imposed from the outside. That’s the last thing I would want. And I couldn’t do it anyway, because for that to work you have to believe in that kind of thing, but I can’t even bear to listen to that kind of talk.

INTERVIEWER

Was that sense of not belonging sharpened when you moved back to the city and found yourself in a different linguistic world? And all of a sudden everything was in Romanian?

MÜLLER

We’d had a little bit in school—after all it was the official state language—but we never had more than one or two hours a week, and the teachers were German and they spoke it relatively poorly. So when I moved to the city, I hardly spoke any Romanian and I was very insecure. For a year and a half all I did was listen. But I liked the sound of the language, I liked all the idioms, I liked how melodic it is, and I liked all the poetic images that come up in everyday speech. In fact, it’s that everyday Romanian that’s the most interesting—it’s very sensual and is able to hint at vulgarity without being crude. That doesn’t exist in German, where the language can turn so ugly and crude very quickly. But in Romanian it’s different, cursing is an art, a kind of magic. True curses are always magical because they’re always in the moment, they vary according to the mood of the speaker and they’re made to fit the situation at hand. I think that’s great.

Anyway, I didn’t set out to learn Romanian in an organized way, I just acquired it through everyday use—that’s usually the simplest way to learn a language. And so after a year and a half, my Romanian was suddenly there. And from then on I kept comparing it to the German—why is one thing called this in one language and that in the other? Plant names, for instance—what we call Maiglöckchen they call “little tears.” And nouns have different genders—in German the sun is feminine and the moon is masculine, but in Romanian it’s the other way around. And that changes everything. The superstitions are different, the fairy tales are different, the entire relationship is different. It makes a huge difference if a rose is masculine, as in Romanian, or feminine, as in German, whether it’s a lady or a gentleman. And I took all of this in and saw how each language has its own eyes, and thought how crazy it is that the two languages could have evolved with such different points of view. I found that so incredibly beautiful, and the more I saw that, the more I wanted to learn to speak and read Romanian. I liked the taste of the language, I had the impression I was eating it, and that’s probably why I learned it quickly.

INTERVIEWER

And when you write, does this Romanian point of view write alongside the German?

MÜLLER

Always. After all, I grew up in Romania. I can’t tell whether a given image in my head comes from one language or the other, or which one I’m using when an object or a situation comes to mind. It’s probably sometimes one way and sometimes the other, or else it’s all mixed together, but naturally the Romanian is writing right alongside the German. I don’t write in Romanian because I’d be too insecure for that, but it grew inside my head, and so I don’t know where each thought comes from.

INTERVIEWER

And not all thoughts come in words, as you have written.

MÜLLER

There are lots of thoughts without words. Even language doesn’t reach the deepest places we have inside us. But I do know that everything would be very different if I hadn’t lived in Romania, and thirty-four years is a long time to have lived anywhere. There’s a different culture, a completely different attitude toward life, and the language reflects that.

INTERVIEWER

In both good ways and bad.

MÜLLER

Yes, it’s strange. On the one hand, Romanian has all this great sensuality and magic, but those are the very things that made the dictatorship so horrible. Because you also had the unpredictability, this penchant for the grandiose, the opportunism, the enormous opportunism. I always believed that these were two sides of the same coin. The Romanians have a saying—mămăligă doesn’t explode.* The Romanians could say that because they recognized that about themselves—that they were very patient, very easily corrupted. I often had the impression that other Eastern European countries were different. Poland comes to mind, or Czechoslovakia. Even Russia. These other countries always had more dissidents, more organized resistance, more samizdat publications. The Romanians would claim they couldn’t do all that because they were more tightly controlled, the country is small and more easily monitored. But I always wondered about this. You had this magnificent language, and then there was this combination of utter cluelessness—as a kind of default predisposition, a preemptive stance—and brutality. But it’s precisely this cluelessness, this utter lack of interest in political affairs, that’s the problem. Because people who aren’t interested aren’t prepared for hard times, they’re quick to give in, quick to conform, and then they’re quick to act brutally against others so as not to put themselves in jeopardy. This was something we thought about all the time. We wanted to understand it, but I don’t know if anyone ever did, it was always so hypothetical. I don’t think I ever figured it out—the more you thought about it the more confusing it all became, the harder it was to take it all in.

INTERVIEWER

You can see that same malleability throughout Romania’s history, in the sudden switch of allegiances toward the end of the war, for instance.

MÜLLER

Yes, and the thing is that even after a particularly catastrophic time was over, the Romanians never admitted that it had been so catastrophic in the first place, or that they—at least certain persons—had played a part in this catastrophe and bore some of the responsibility. This was the case with fascism, when they were fighting with Hitler. Antonescu’s was the same kind of regime as the Nazis. There were race laws and ghettos and pogroms, they rounded up Jews and Gypsies and took them to death camps, there were concentration camps under Romanian administration, with Romanian personnel. And afterward, all of that was denied, and it’s denied to this day, at least in part—or perhaps we should say today it’s being denied once again. And then came the Communist dictatorship, and after that was over, again no one was at fault, no one was responsible. There’s still been no real reappraisal—we don’t know who is responsible for more than a thousand people killed in 1989, who was shooting at whom, just like we don’t know how many people were murdered in prison during the dictatorship. There are no statistics, nothing. People just don’t take the trouble to investigate.

INTERVIEWER

And in the literature?

MÜLLER

There might be some scholarly works that address particular themes, but there’s no broader grappling with the past. For that you need open archives, you have to have access to the material, but wherever you turn there are people from the old system preventing this from happening. They’re still very much there, and these same people have once again become important. Most of them have better jobs than everyone else, and they know and protect one another. So once again we’ve reached the point where people just shrug their shoulders and say, Was there something going on? Yes, there was, but who knows what actually happened, and is it really that important? Whereas I always think that things went the way they did because no one had ever talked about the first dictatorship. Maybe that wasn’t possible earlier on, since right after fascism came Stalinism, so there wasn’t time to work things through. But at this point, this long afterward, people can and need to deal with it, and the reason that so little is happening in Romania right now is because people haven’t dealt with either dictatorship. Nothing has been clarified, and nobody wants to know anything about it

INTERVIEWER

No coming to terms with history.

MÜLLER

So things repeat themselves. For instance, right now in Romania anti-Semitism is very strong. There’s an unbelievably aggressive nationalism, and that also has to do with the fact that no one has ever talked about these things. They’re again elevating the idea of a national identity, and that has horrible connotations—of national chauvinism dressed in the garb of religion, for instance. We saw that with Romanian fascism under Antonescu, when the churches played a horrible role, and today the same thing is happening. It’s all pretty sad

INTERVIEWER

A few years ago, you wrote a piece for a symposium in Stockholm on the theme “Can literature bear witness?” In that text, you mentioned that, although your books are often read as testimonies, you don’t think of yourself as bearing witness as you write them.

MÜLLER

I never set out to write literature. When I started writing, back then in the factory—

INTERVIEWER

When you were hounded out of your office—

MÜLLER

That’s right. Back then in the factory I wrote because I had to, as a matter of self-assurance, because all doors were closed. I didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know how things would go on, my father had died, I couldn’t go back to the village, I didn’t have any perspectives at all, and there was a lot of fear because the secret police were harassing me daily. It was an absurd situation—they’d kicked me out of my office but I still had to work. I couldn’t leave the factory, couldn’t give them a pretext to dismiss me. And so I started writing, and suddenly there was this rearview mirror, and everything started coming back about my life in the village. I wasn’t trying to write literature, I just put it down on paper to gain a foothold, to get a grip on my life.