When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Herta Müller last year, some criticized the choice on the grounds that there was something political about it. They were right, I think. But they were right for different reasons: Müller's work is political not in any superficial way, but in the more profound sense of literature as bearing witness. Hers is a work where the aesthetic and the political fuse in such a way that one is incomprehensible without the other. Sometimes "telling the truth" can be a distinctly political gesture, and in Müller's work both "telling" and "truth" are so important that, in a way, storytelling is for her truth-telling. Hence its tremendous importance for charting the disastrous history of 20th-century Europe.
Thanks to the works of Solzhenitsyn and others, the Western reader has become familiar with Stalin's Soviet Union at its cruellest. At the other end of the totalitarian spectrum, because of a Havel, Kundera, Milosz or Kertesz, there is a certain understanding of what happened in Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary, where the existence (and persistence) of a strong dissident culture prevented the respective communist regimes from becoming excessively oppressive. In contrast, comparatively few literary works are available in the West to represent that curious mix of bleakness, absurdity, cruelty and senselessness that was Ceausescu's Romania.
There is a Romantic misconception that terror has always to be impressive, fierce and appropriately Luciferian - in other words, that terror is nothing if it is not spectacular. However, that's rarely the case in real life. As Czeslaw Milosz excellently put it in The Native Realm, "Terror is not … monumental; it is abject, it has a furtive glance, it destroys the fabric of human society and changes the relationships of millions of individuals into channels for blackmail." Terror can be mediocre, even idiotic, yet omnipresent. Terror can be terribly banal, utterly un-Romantic, but never-ending. Terror is when the secret police persuade your best friend to inform on you; when objects start moving around your room in your absence; when the secret police interrogator tells you, right before you leave his office after a day-long interrogation, that "accidents do happen," or when your friends start committing (poorly) staged suicides.
Müller's work ... maps out, with surgical precision, this mediocre yet sinister face of European totalitarianism
That's why Herta Müller's work is so important: It maps out, with surgical precision, this mediocre yet sinister face of European totalitarianism, which is something that has been largely unaccounted for. Her novels document the oppressive fears and anxieties of a world turned upside-down, a world where the secret police do not necessarily kill you, but mess up your life enough to make you lose your mind.
Take The Appointment, a novel about a tram ride, a 214-page tram ride. The narrative slowly and laboriously finds its way through a complex web of flashbacks, recollections and side stories, as if to mirror the tram's tortuous itinerary through the city. While it is easy enough to determine how the trip starts, its ending is quite indeterminate as, over the last few pages, the narrative seems to melt down into a stream of hallucinations and disjointed thoughts. The main character/narrator had been headed for an appointment with her Securitate interrogator, but by the end of the story we are not at all sure that she is going to see him - see him while still in her right mind, that is. For the novel may well be read as a journey into madness. The more so as its very last sentence is an oblique reference to insanity: "The trick is not to go mad."
The nameless narrator is a writer of sorts, and that's precisely what triggers the Securitate's investigation of her. A freshly divorced employee in a clothing factory, she "makes up her mind to marry a Westerner," even though no Westerners are around. Her method of invoking them is certainly original: Along with her name and address, she writes short notes ("Marry me, ti aspetto") and slips them into male suits bound for Italy: "The first Italian who replied would be accepted." When she is fired, her employer comes up with an equally imaginative accusation: Her notes are considered "prostitution in the workplace."
However, the termination of her employment is only the beginning of a prolonged affair with the Securitate: "The tree [outside the investigator's window]must have grown the length of an arm since my first interrogation." Soon she turns into a full-time interrogee; whenever she is not summoned, she readies herself for her next appointment. Everything now revolves around interrogations, and her life is divided between time spent with the interrogator and time without him. "To be summoned" has become a fact of everyday life, a matter of self-definition: "I myself am nothing, apart from being summoned."
The Securitate sought not to summon everybody, but to create the impression that it did. Not that it was especially good at instilling fear. Like almost everything in communist Romania, the Securitate was dysfunctional, corrupt and mostly incompetent (in 1989, it couldn't even stage a decent coup). But its sheer power made up for what was lacking in professionalism.
Müller experienced this arbitrary power personally in the 1980s at the hands of the Securitate: She describes the experience in breathtaking detail in her collection of autobiographical essays Der König verneigt sich und tötet (The King Bows and Kills, unavailable in English). Years later, when the archives of the former secret police were opened, she was to find out how interesting her case was for them: The file on her (more than 900 pages) almost competed in size with what she wrote on them.
This is the more ironic as, until several few months ago, Müller was largely ignored by the Romanian literary establishment, even though most of her work is about Romania and her first book was published there. For example, in a recent 1,500-page critical history of Romanian literature, her name is never mentioned.
Under Ceausescu, with very few exceptions, Romanian writers were a rather sleepy lot: Most could not be bothered to engage in an open confrontation with the Securitate, preferring entanglement in other kinds of stories. That's why, if there is a lesson that they (or anybody else) could learn from Müller's Nobel, it is that it takes more than mere literary talent to produce true literature.
Costica Bradatan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, specializing in literature and philosophy and the history of philosophy. He received his degrees from the University of Bucharest (BA, MA) and the University of Durham in Britain (PhD).