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Herta Mueller: Literary conscience of Ceausescu’s Romania

Berlin — Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Literature Prize, used her early years under Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime as her main source of inspiration.

"Ceausescu was a choleric with a grade four education," Mueller wrote in a 2007 newspaper column, calling him "the most evil dictator" after Stalin, "with a personality cult to rival North Korea’s."

Born August 17, 1953 in the German-speaking Nabat region of Romania, Mueller’s father was a member of the Nazi SS. Romania’s postwar communist authorities deported her mother to a labour camp.

After studying literature between 1973 and 1976, Mueller was sacked from her first job as a translator in a machinery factory after refusing to work for Ceausescu’s hated Securitate secret police.

It was at this time that she began to write seriously, refusing however to publish her first book Niederungen (Nadirs) in Romania because of attempts by the authorities to censor it.

The manuscript, described by one reviewer as "brutally honest and dreadfully sad", was smuggled into West Germany, where it was published in 1984. Spiegel magazine pronounced her a "discovery."

After being refused permission to emigrate to West Germany in 1985, she was finally allowed to leave in 1987 after her barbed criticism of her native country’s regime earned her death threats from the secret police.

Two years later, and 20 years ago this November, the Berlin Wall fell, and Ceausescu and his wife Elena were summarily executed by firing squad on Christmas Day the same year.

The first German to win the prize since Guenter Grass in 1999, the 56-year-old Mueller now lives in Berlin.

"I am stunned and still cannot believe it. I can’t say any more right now," she said in a statement released by her publisher on Thursday.

Her many works are little known outside the German-speaking world, but inside Germany, Switzerland and Austria Mueller is feted among intellectuals, with the German weekly Die Zeit calling her works "an immense literary memo in the history of political terror."

"The art that this author has is putting into words the inexpressible in daily fear of dictatorship, of arrest, torture and murder," the paper said earlier this year. "She is one of the most important literary witnesses of our disastrous era."

Michael Naumann, a former German culture minister, said of her 2003 collection of her political writings: "Every one of her words is serious … they are each heavier than the book itself."

Other books about the Ceausescu regime include Herztier (Land Of Green Plums), described in the New York Times Book Review as a "kind of fairy tale on the mingled evils of gluttony, stupidity and brutality."

Reisende auf einem Bein (Traveling On One Leg), written in West Berlin, paints a visual tapestry of the difficulties of leaving Romania and settling anew in foreign surroundings.

Beside the prizes for her debut, she has received the European literary prize Aristeion, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Kleist Prize, one of Germany’s most prestigious, and the Kafka Prize.

"During the dictatorship, people escaped over the border daily. Many never made it to the West, they disappeared, were probably shot. There are countless border deaths, entire cemeteries, and their relatives don’t know what happened to them, who is responsible," she said in her Frankfurter Rundschau column.

But she also lashed out at her home country two decades on, saying Romania, a member of the European Union beset with high levels of corruption, was "afflicted by collective amnesia" about its past, with many members of the old Securitate still employed to this day.

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica