‘Nadirs’ by Herta Müller, translated by Sieglinde Lug

This collection of largely autobiographical stories may be more for devotees of Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, but to my mind it provides a good point of entry to her work. It is not quite as grim and dark as some of her later novels, but it’s certainly not an easy read, with plenty of tales of domestic violence, cruelty towards animals, alcoholism and so on. Yet at the same time it provides a child’s view of growing up as part of an ethnic minority in the west of Romania, with sensuous descriptions of family and village life, and of a lonely child finding some connection with nature.

First published in translation in Nadirs, University of Nebraska Press, 1999

‘Nadirs’ by Herta Müller, translated by Sieglinde Lug

When reading Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller, I am eleven again—a child crouched on the floor, listening to Romanian whispers behind closed doors. Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature for her stark depiction of life under the Romanian communist regime. In rejecting emotional self-reflexivity and therapy-soaked discourse, Müller created a harrowing oeuvre that objectifies humans and anoints objects to carry the affective register of subjectivity. The narration is blank, immature, concretized. A self-erasing child-like voice records the world, drawing attention to how humans use language to describe it. Plots are sparse. Juxtaposition drives events in circles, in pauses, in seasons. Small details depict the abyss between life as it is lived, or performed, under a totalitarian system, and language, which must be continuously translated.

This refusal to offer plot, or to link actions to consequences, is symptomatic of trauma. To speak of one’s feelings was unacceptable in Ceausescu’s Romania. Your feelings simply did not matter. Your self, as separate from the national, did not exist. Your safety was a joke. Nationalist communism made life unlivable for ethnic and religious minorities. The double-alienation demands a sort of literary aphasia, a counterpoint to the continuous disputations over language. The unspeakable infects various silences while the speaker shuffles back and forth between what an object is called in the village, and what it is called in the official language (often equated with the city). Proximity to the official makes the city seem more developed and progressive than the village. (Village vs. the city asserts an ongoing tension in Müller’s work.)

It is easier for an acorn to soliloquy than for a person to speak clearly when the dictator plants his eyes everywhere. Müller’s novella-length story, ‘Nadirs,’ ordains ordinary objects to describe a Swabian village haunted by violence and war. Even loss is communicated through things. “I saw mother lying naked and frozen in Russia, with scraped legs and green lips from the turnips,” she writes, revealing how the mother’s memories of camps in Siberia are carried by the child in images and objects, in the lowlands of the bogs and village marshes whose frogs are “croaking from all the living and the dead of this village.”

The frogs, like the dead, are inescapable: “Everybody brought a frog along with them when they immigrated.” The frog follows the villagers. Each carries a frog in their throat when they leave. Müller uses a non-mammalian creature to posit this colonizing silence—a strategy she repeats with landscapes, trees, glasses, tables—the solid is a vehicle for the unspeakable. Describing the storm outside, nature enables the speaker to communicate her feelings: “At night the trees outside were lashing at each other. I saw them through the walls. Grandmother’s house had become like a house of glass.” The characters are helpless. Thunder (or fear) closes the blinds. Telephone wires argue, trees lash out at each other, even the boxes are tormented by Grandmother’s silence. No one arm-wrestles ghosts in unnamed cenotaphs like Müller. No one’s plums rot more profusely in my head.

First published in Niederungen, Kriterion, 1982. Published in translation in Nadirs, University of Nebraska Press, 1999