Germany hails literature Nobel honor for Herta Mueller | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.10.2009

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Germany hails literature Nobel honor for Herta Mueller

Romanian-born German author Herta Mueller, whose works depict life under dictatorship, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chancellor Merkel called it a "wonderful sign" 20 years after the fall of communism.

German writer Herta Mueller

All eyes were on Mueller on Thursday

Announcing the award in Stockholm on Thursday, the Swedish Academy praised the 56-year-old for both her poetry and prose.

It said Mueller had an ability to "depict the landscape of the dispossessed" and wrote "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose."

The novelist and essayist is the first German writer to win the Nobel award since Guenter Grass in 1999.

Romania's former leader Nicolae Ceausescu

Mueller's works depict the brutal conditions under Ceausescu's totalitarian regime

Mueller is renowned for her portrayal of harsh conditions under Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship in Romania.

The Berlin-based author, who emigrated to West Germany in 1987, has also focused in her works and essays on the rootless life and alienation of a political exile.

An "important voice"

Germany's literary and political world hailed the timing of Mueller's victory, shortly before the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Europe.

"Particularly now, 20 years after the fall of the Wall, this is a wonderful sign," Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. "We are happy that she has found her home in Germany and I congratulate her."

Guenter Grass said on Thursday he was "impressed and very happy" that Mueller took the prize this year.

German writer Guenter Grass

Grass won the prize in 1999 for "The Tin Drum"

Gottfried Honnefelder of the German Book Publishers' Association called Mueller "one of the most important voices we have - powerful and nuanced."

German President Horst Koehler praised Mueller's depiction of life under a totalitarian regime. "She wrote against forgetting history and thus reminded us of the value of freedom that can never be taken for granted," he said.

Work driven by own experience of totalitarianism

Mueller, who beat out favorites Philip Roth and Amos Oz, to win the prize, said she was overwhelmed by the honor.

"I think I still need some more time to make sense of it," she said on Thursday. "I tell myself it's not me. It's my books, which have their own existence. They are the actual 'persons' that got the prize."

At a press conference in Berlin, Mueller said her work was deeply intertwined with her personal experience of living under a totalitarian regime.

"My writing always had to do with the question - how could a handful of powerful people seize a country. What gave them that right?" she said.

"You can also count the Nazi regime, the concentration camps, military dictatorships and the religious dictatorships in some Islamic countries," she said. "So many people are crushed by them, so many lives ruined."

German writer Herta Mueller

Mueller has spoken out against oppression in Germany too

Mueller was born in 1953 in Nitzkydorf as a member of Romania's German minority. Her mother was deported to a labor camp in the Soviet Union after World War II.

In the mid-1970s, Mueller studied German and Romanian literature at university in Timisoara, during which time she was linked with Aktionsgruppe Banat, a circle of young German-speaking authors who opposed Ceausescu’s dictatorship.

She lost her job in Romania during the 1970s for refusing to cooperate with the regime's secret police.

After being refused permission to emigrate to West Germany in 1985, Mueller was finally allowed to leave in 1987 after her veiled 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.

"I felt [in 1987] that I could breathe, and it was only when the dictatorship fell in 1989 and I felt I wouldn't be threatened any more," Mueller said on Thursday.

Little-known outside German-speaking world

Mueller made her literary debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories, "Niederungen" or "Lowlands" which was censored in Romania. It depicts life in a remote German-speaking village. It won instant critical acclaim when it was published later in Germany.

In Germany, Mueller continued to speak out against oppression and collaboration, also in her adopted home. In the 1990s, she gave readings in refugee shelters to protest against a wave of racist attacks against foreigners. She also criticized East German writers who had worked with the secret police.

Mueller's many works are little-known outside the German-speaking world since only four have been translated into English. Among them are "The Land of Green Plums" and "The Appointment," which graphically depict the brutality suffered by modest people living under totalitarianism.

A woman reads a book by Herta Mueller

Mueller's "Everything I Own I Carry With Me"

Mueller has won several literary awards including the European literary prize Aristeion, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Kleist Prize, one of Germany's most prestigious, and the Kafka Prize.

She was shortlisted for the German Book Prize for her latest book, "Atemschaukel," or "Everything I Own I Carry With Me," which was published in German earlier this year. The winner will be announced on October 12.

Mueller is the 12th woman and the 13th German-speaking author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She will receive a prize of 10 million Swedish crowns (1 million euros) along with her Nobel medal, which will be presented at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10.

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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