undefinedMüller, in 2009.

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 forty ­five years of age to forced­ labor 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.