In the context where the personal realm not only interacts with but actively mediates the very work of art that is being produced, it is in Herta Müller’s writings that one can find the best representation of the island man metaphor.

I have discovered Herta Müller with the determination of the philologist who never leaves any Nobel Prize Edition unsurveyed, nor any winner unread. When she received the Nobel prize back in 2009, I barely had an idea about what I was to find on the slippery (sometimes even marshy) grounds of her feminist writing. To a certain degree, I only engaged with Herta Müller’s work due to a kind of curiosity that didn’t allow me to be entirely ignorant about the Swedish Academy’s choices. What did I come to realise, you may ask?

In The Land of Green Plums, [1] I discovered how the suggested imagery hidden behind mere words was much more powerful than I would have initially guessed. The inexperienced reader (as we are all when it comes to such an unusual style as the one of this particular novel) will hardly ever seek to decipher the inner mechanism through which the imagery is rendered; instead, one would rather get carried away by its very own introspective effect. Or, given my initial purely hedonistic motivation to pursue her work, this is how I believe that my initiation into Herta Müller’s oeuvre transpired. My second encounter with her writing was far more deliberate and thoughtful, as this experience emerged as a result of writing my PhD thesis, whilst researching potential patterns that could place her work under a distinctive kind of literature—the feminist autofiction. In my attempts to reject the growing temptation to sympathise with feminist issues, I was quickly faced with the burdensome task of objectively analysing the literary work itself. In this manner, I was able to distill the condensation of meanings, as well as the poetisation of discourse or the intentionally silent semiological gaps: conjointly, they proved to be nothing less but forms of manifestations that were traceable to a traumatic autobiography perpetually revitalising itself through literature.

In the context where the personal realm not only interacts with but actively intermediates the very work of art that is being produced, it is in Herta Müller’s writings that one can find the best representation of the island man metaphor. This is how the writer describes her existence under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania from which her entire body of work stems:

“I experienced more than thirty years of dictatorship in Romania. It was a place where every individual was an island, while the whole country represented a sealed space carefully surveilled from the inside and disconnected from the outside. Two distinct realities constrained to overlap, […] where either of them could crush you.” [2]

With her roots traceable to the local Swabian community that had long been living in the Banat region of Romania as a result of the forced Caroline colonisation that marked the beginning of the 18th century, Müller’s ethnic origin and agitated history would leave a decisive mark on her entire literary work. Moreover, in addition to representing an ethnic community that has routinely fought back and defied all historical misfortunes, matters of resistance grew in the writer’s own family who chose to stay in Banat despite the deportation of her grandmother in the Soviet Union and her father’s decision to join the Nazi Waffen–SS. Following in her inherited footsteps of resisting against communism, Herta Müller herself ventures to break the chains of an oppressive regime by getting involved in the initiatives of the dissident group Aktionsgruppe Banat, together with Richard Wagner, Helmuth Frauendorfer, and William Totok. Harassed and investigated by the Romanian secret police, Müller decides to flee to Germany in 1987.

It is rather obvious that Müller’s body of work is established upon a network of complex structures which delineate the writer’s ‘autobiographical space’. Her first book entitled Niederungen (Nadirs) is published in 1982 following prolonged processes of censorship, only to be reissued in its original format in 1984 on German territory.[3] Returning to the cathartic function of literature, Müller seeks to come to terms with the painful realities of her past that was troubled by the iron curtain of the Romanian secret police. The marginalised community of Transylvanian Saxons from Niţchidorf and the fragmented survival stories orally transmitted by her mother and grandmother result in an identity puzzle whose pieces are combined in her work with a view to pursue a unifying significance.

Living in a totalitarian regime hallmarks Herta Müller’s own identity, while literature enables her to potentiate new meanings regarding this experience. But what are the ‘obsessive metaphors’ that create the writer’s personal myth? A marginal existence is rendered by the relationship between her mother tongue (as an element defining the Swabs’ identity in Banat) and Romanian (‘the language of venturesome metaphors’), the relationship she has with her father (an ex-SS soldier), the friendship which is torn by the secret police and deportation stories (told by her mother or the old good friend, Oskar Pastior).

Published in 1994, the novel Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums—1996) falls into the category of fictionalised autobiographies set during Ceaușescu’s regime, a type of work that goes against the affiliation to a sole, state-led cultural tradition and the national canon of socialist-realism. The narrative nuclei of this novel are carried out by the traumatising experiences of four German youths who are investigated and persecuted by the Romanian secret police, the Securitate. The tragic event that brings them together is Lola’s death—the suicide of a student who gets pregnant after an affair with the Gymnastics teacher, who also happens to be a member of the Communist Party. With the four youths laying their hands on Lola’s secret diary, they hide the document, and, subsequently, become the guardians of Lola’s memory. After being constantly harassed by the regime’s instruments of oppression, some of them emigrate to Germany while others die under suspicious circumstances. Onto this narrative fabric, the reader is acquainted with a terrified and lonely childhood lived in the rural universe dominated by paternal authority.

Due to a pact based on sincerity between the writer and the reader (“I wrote this book in the memory of my Romanian friends who were killed during Ceaușescu’s regime. I felt indebted to do it for them.”), the characters of her novel bear resemblance with the reality of those times: Edgar, Kurt and Georg represent the fictional projections of her fellow writers from Aktionsgruppe Banat, Richard Wagner (n. 1952), Roland Kirsch (1960-1989) who commits suicide after losing any hope to emigrate to Germany, Rolf Bossert (1952-1986) who manages to flee to Germany, but once arrived in Frankfurt, kills himself. In this respect, the novel’s motto—the passage from Gellu Naum’s poem “The Tear” (1941)—is a reminder of the capricious nature of friendship during troubled times:

“i had a friend in every glimpse of clouds
in fact, that’s how friends are when there is so much dread in the world
my mother used to tell me that I should forget about becoming
a friend
and that I’d better start thinking of something serious.”

Nevertheless, the most important passages of the novel are quite introspective, being centred around a certain type of identity and further built up in the context of marginality, as an intersecting expression that touches upon several dichotomies. In this regard, by scrutinising beyond her poetic style and nonconformist narrative, we can distinguish vivid imageries illustrating the relationships between an ever present binary: the dominator and the dominated. Regardless of their pervasiveness, the ongoing power issues become relative. (This is the case with the investigator called Piele* (Skin) and the narrator whose relationship is constrained by external factors—the captain’s kidney pains and the luck from his obsessive retort: ”You are lucky to have met me!”) This is how the writer renders the image of a world in which the legitimate existence of any relations of forces is dismissed, an idea aptly illustrated through an excellent mise en abyme: Mrs. Grauberg’s nephew fools around pretending to be a bus conductor—when he sits, he is a bus passenger; when he stands up, he is the conductor of the same bus. Relying upon this annulment of power, the meetings with the captain, which are narrational episodes hinting toward already-experienced traumas, emerge from Herta Müller’s writing due to her poetic language: to write whatever the Investigator commands, to tweet out of the fear of getting beaten, to be interrogated naked, are truths that can be barely noticed under the disguise of an intensely poetic layer: "I was standing in the corner of the room. I was stark naked and I said to myself that I had to write what they wanted. I had to tweet the song. I did it automatically as nothing could hurt my feelings any longer. Suddenly my skin was thicker than my thumb. […] I had the feeling that the words materialised into a fabric that covered my body.”

The very efforts of getting by in a small community are inherently reliant upon the discrepancies between the majority and the minority, between the national and the ethnic. On the one hand, there is pressure from the majority that wants to impose its own rules. The mixed groups formed in the hostel—either in the little square where Lola and the girls stay, or in the place shared by Edgar, Kurt, Georg and the Romanian boys—are to be standardised by actively cancelling the aforementioned discrepancies. At all times, there is someone who imposes rules: Lola is forbidden to wear the other girls’ stockings or dresses, as well as to fry eggs on the iron’s soleplate, while the three boys are supposed to obey their roommates’ guidelines and remain cool-headed regardless of others’ potential defiance: “Five young men were allowed to stay in each room, which contained five beds with five coffers underneath them. A window, a loudspeaker above the door, a closet bordering the wall. Each coffer contained socks, and, beneath them, shaving cream and razor blades.”[4] 

On the other hand, the minority claims a (perpetually-closed) territory, inhabited by a traditional rural community that rejects any contact with the other ethnic group. This fragment from a letter sent by a mother to her daughter exemplifies this symbolic conflict: ”Mrs. Margit has let me know that you are seeing three men. I bless the Almighty that they are Germans but you are still under the suspicion of sexual promiscuity. I struggle to pay your schooling in the city and that’s how you repay me? As a reward for my sacrifice, I find out that I have raised a whore. I would not be surprised to discover that you have another lover at the factory. God forbid that someday you’ll introduce me to someone from Wallachia [Romania] saying: This is my man.”[5]

The same tendency of withdrawal toward the community’s safe haven as well as the same sense of belonging can be noticed in the juxtaposition of the young men’s family stories: ”Whenever we returned home, instead of talking about our Nazi fathers, we talked about our mothers, and we were surprised to realise that, despite the fact that our mothers had never met before, they sent us letters in which they gave an account of almost identical illnesses: the same pains of gallbladder, stomach, spleen, and loin.”[6]

The four characters—the narrator, Edgar, Kurt and Georg—mingle their destinies when Lola dies, and thus, become, as previously mentioned, ‘the guardians of her memory’. Indeed, they are the authors of the underpinning, convoluted story narrated in the novel—a history that, despite opposing the ‘grand historical narrative’, is perpetually relevant and revelatory for the regular individual as well as for the reader. As a matter of fact, many passages of the novel depict and reconstruct the protagonists’ collective effort to preserve the history of the community they belong to. This exercise of restoring a ‘lost’ memory is possible only due to the group’s indivisibility and solidarity: “When I tried to think of Lola by myself, I wasn’t able to retrieve too many things. When I was with them, I remembered everything. It was in front of their fixed eyes that I could project what was stored inside my head. It was in the cracks of my own skull that I could retrieve every sentence which had vanished from Lola’s diary. I said it out loud. And Edgar wrote down several sentences in his notebook.”[7]

The group’s separation after graduation is triggered by external and uncontrollable factors: Edgar is appointed teacher in a metallurgical town—‘the land of tin sheep’—and shares his room with a Gymnastics teacher (we cannot say for sure if he is responsible for Lola’s death, but he bears the same function of a guardian), Georg winds up at the town of ‘wooden melons’, whereas Kurt, now an engineer in a slaughterhouse, is faced with the image of workers drinking the warm blood of sacrificed animals. This insular existence of the characters substantiates a distinctive kind of alienation, one that stems out of the writer’s own experience. In fact, let’s go back to the similar sense of estrangement reiterated by Müller before:

“I experienced more than thirty years of dictatorship in Romania. It was a place where every individual was an island, while the whole country represented a sealed space carefully surveilled from the inside and disconnected from the outside. Two distinct realities constrained to overlap, […] where either of them could crush you.” [8]

Any sense of unity is granted only in the universe of writing, as the creative act remains a mechanism through which (self-)identities and traumas can be recognised, articulated, and, ultimately, healed. Therefore, memory is preserved in writing: Lola’s notebook, is transposed into another (Edgar’s), which, eventually, will tell Lola’s story. As a reference to the purpose of fiction, these written records have the role of mystifying reality through poetisation or ellipsis (see the last page from Lola’s notebook that conjures up the raping scene from the gym by means of metaphor and allegory). A similar function of preserving memory is played by the letters circulating among friends, which are marked by distinctive signals, such as strands of hair [9] or an obsolete linguistic code: Flu and nail scissors, units of vocabulary whose latent meaning is far detached from the norms of mainstream language. “I found nothing in them so I used them as such in a potentially correct, yet categorically wrong sentence. Had I crossed out flu and nail scissors in this sentence and had I written them a few lines below, I would have done more harm than good. I could have crossed out any other sentence. Had I crossed out flu and nail scissors, it would have been an even worse clue rather than a bad sentence.” [10]

Following an extrinsic impulse that severely impacts upon them, each of the four protagonists is profoundly affected by the surrounding space they wind up at. The marks left by the environment on Lola or Tereza do not reflect the sense of belonging to a space, but rather a unification of selves which becomes possible due to a shared experience. According to the principle of reiterations as a manifestation of identity through discourse, Lola and Edgar are described in the following manner: “Lola came from the South of the country and one could clearly recognise the poverty of that place on her face. I cannot say for sure, perhaps it was reflected on her cheeks, or around her mouth, or even in the iris of her eyes. Something like this is difficult to determine, equally difficult about a region as about a cheek. All the regions from the country were impoverished and every cheek mirrored this. Lola’s land, as it was mirrored on her cheeks, mouth, and eyes, was perhaps even poorer. It was rather a land than a landscape.” [11] “I saw this town reflected upon Edgar’s face, in the iris of his eyes, on the side of his cheeks, around his mouth. He had long hair. His face stood out like an empty square that could not bear any lighting.” [12]

Ultimately, to fully understand how the novel was written, one needs to inspect not only the cross-cultural grid prompted by the existent theme and discourse, but also the very prospect of reconstructing life through aggregating fragments that emerge on different levels of existence, further reiterated until saturation, until they become meaningful. To fully understand how the novel developed from the embryonic stage of conception up to its materialisation into a work of art, one has to see the text as a discursive document through which history is redeemed and recovered: to write a novel representative of a community is, for Herta Müller, an attempt to come to terms and reconcile with History.

  1. The English translation of the original title Herztier proves itself more suitable for its narrative style.
  2. Müller H. (2005) The King Bows and Kills, p.180.
  3. The titles translated also in Romanian are: Reisende auf einem Bein (Traveling on One Leg, 1989), Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (Even Back Then, the Fox Was the Hunter, 1992), Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm (The Guard Takes His Comb, 1993), Herztier (The Land of the Green Plums, 1994), Hunger und Seide (Hunger and Silk, 1995), Heute wär ich mier liber nicht begenet (The Appointment, 1997), Der Fremde Blick (The Foreign View, 1999), Der König verneigt sich und tötet (The King Bows and Kills, 2003), Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel, 2010), Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel (Always the Same Snow and always the same Uncle, 2011).
  4. Müller H. (2006) The Land of Green Plums, p.55.
  5. Ibidem, p.160.
  6. Ibidem, p.48.
  7. Ibidem, p.39.
  8. Müller H. (2005) The King Bows and Kills, p.180.
  9. The hair and fingernails serve as corporeal elements to which the protagonists show an excessive care: Lola frequently cuts her fingernails in the tram, the young kid cuts his bangs until it’s short and spiky as a brush, the narrator’s father goes to the barber three days before he dies. These can be read as manifestations of the degradation of the self, an unconscious desire to resist death, as these bodily parts continue to exist and grow independently after death.
  10. Müller H. (2006) The Land of Green Plums, p.93.
  11. Ibidem, p.8.
  12. Ibidem, p.86.
Note: An important distinction needs to be made between the women photographed by Kilian Müller and the community described by Violeta Teodora Lungeanu. If the former belong to the Siebenbürger Sachsen ethnic group, the latter comprises the Banater Schwaben fraction.
Violeta Teodora Lungeanu teaches high-schoolers Romanian language and literature and is involved in endeavours that satisfy her very own epistemic curiosities (an activity that has resulted in a PhD thesis in Philology – The Metamorphosis of Feminine Autofiction in post-1989 Romanian Literature). Most importantly, she is a loving and devoted wife and mother.
Kilian Müller is a Berlin based photographer. He studied philosophy, sociology, and political science before he starting Photography at Ostkreuzschule Berlin, where he graduated with Hüter der Kirche in 2014. In 2015, he won the Canon Profifoto prize, and, in 2016, he had three solo shows at Residenzmuseum Altenburg, Burgmuseum Mylau, and Siebenbürgisches Museum Gundelsheim. (