Nadirs was first published in Berlin in 1988. Now the book, the first by Herta Mueller, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, has been reissued in a translation by Sieglinde Lug. It's a slim volume, but it's packed with a powerfully resonant series of short takes on Mueller's childhood in the Banat, the German-speaking region of Romania.
All of the overwhelming details of childhood tumble through the pages of Mueller's extraordinary re-creation of her early life in a small village: light, air, wind, grass, trees, cows, and snakes, urine and feces and bodies, the sky, the stars, the moon. Mueller's mastery of image and sensations is so sharp I found myself, despite the book's brevity, unable to read more than a few pages, sometimes just paragraphs, in a single sitting.
She leaps from the real to the fantastic in the middle of a sentence, as when she describes her mother lifting out the window glass in their little house and washing the windows in a big tin tub.
"They are so clean that you can see the whole village in them," Mueller writes, "as if in the mirror of the water. They look like they were water. The village looks like it was water, too. It makes you dizzy if you look at the village in the glass for a long time."
When, in summer, night falls on her village, she says she never understood how this happened: "Every night the summer drowned carelessly in the middle of the village."
Or when she writes about bathing: "When my skin got dry, it tightened and felt like glass. My whole body felt how I was getting beautiful and I stepped carefully not to break apart. ... My gait had something of my grandmother's starched linen. When I slept in it the first night night it rustled with any move, and I believed my skin was rustling."
The world of the village, as Mueller celebrates it, rustles on these pages. Each line, each paragraph, such a wedding of insight and the fantastic that I could scarcely hold the book without trembling.
Herta Mueller, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in a tiny German community in Romania. Her village was suffocating and insular, but Mueller recently told Swedish television that she felt like an outsider in the rest of Romania, too. Even speaking made her aware of her differences:
"Of all these languages that I have borrowed, not even one belongs to me — not the one from home, not even the Romanian. None belongs to me, and that's why there is such an impulse in me to write," she said.
Mueller began writing as a young intellectual under the regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She was shadowed on the street, fired for refusing to inform on co-workers, and arrested. A friend committed suicide under similar pressure.
Bridget Haines, who edited a book about the author, says the effects of living in Romania remained with Mueller, even after she fled to Germany at the age of 22.
Haines says that when Mueller's first review was published, Mueller bought 20 copies of the newspaper because she didn't realize how easy it was to make photocopies: "In Ceausescu's Romania, photocopiers were only owned by the secret service. You weren't allowed to copy anything."
Mueller writes poetically about very grim things — exile, oppression and the horrors of Nazi Germany, Soviet gulags and Eastern European dictatorships.
Her most recent book, Atemschaukel, draws from her mother's memories of a Soviet labor camp. The hero is a teenager who darkly observes that getting deported to such a camp will at least get him out of his "thimble of a town where all the stones have eyes." Five years later, he's released into a busy town where he could be stopped and interrogated at any moment:
I have packed myself into silence so deeply I can never unpack myself in words. I just pack myself differently each time I speak.
Mueller's own experiences have led her to stand up for newer refugees fleeing to Europe from all over the world: "Why has it always been in this world that people should leave their countries and others are the ones committing the crimes?" she asks.
As for her own status as a refugee, she has returned to Romania, but only as a visitor: "One never comes back the same way," she says. "Once you leave under such circumstances, you become a different person."