Herta Muller’s face, projected above her tiny form onto a vast screen in Cartagena’s main theatre, looked as though it might have been filmed by Pabst or Fritz Lang. Her black hair was cut into a chin-length bob, her wide pale eyes outlined in black, her mouth a bright red slit from which emerged the rolling, rasping German she learned growing up as a member of a minority in rural Romania in the 1950s.
For some of us, the alienation effect was increased by a simultaneous translation into Spanish filtering into one ear (English was not offered), but that did nothing to minimise her expressive, haunted likeness to Lotte Lenya, and even, occasionally, to Louise Brooks.
The novelist said she did not learn Romanian until she arrived in Bucharest at the age of 15 in the late 1960s. For a full year she almost didn’t speak at all, but she found Romanian “very melodious”. “Everyday language is grandiose, unordinary. I liked the language, I liked the taste of it, I felt like I wanted to eat it,” she said, adding: “Swear words are an art in Romanian.” (Some might conclude that she had translated some of that art into German. At a party later that night, Müller was heard to complain: “Was ist diese Discoscheiße?”)
Müller spoke mesmerisingly about her childhood, when, as an only child left to her own devices, she befriended the plants – gave them names and stories, imagined they married one another, and got up to things when she wasn’t looking. But a story that at first seemed merely sweet morphed into one that said a great deal about the effect on the mind of living in a totalitarian regime. Because she knew them so well, Müller suspected some of the flowers of being collaborators. She began to blame the sun for shining on beaches that belonged to the dictator. “It doesn’t know who it’s dealing with!” she thought.
Müller, who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for her novels about Romania’s crimes under communism and during the war, described being having her house bugged by the Securitate, and said that, unless the country learned from its mistakes, it would continue to make them. “Still, today, they deny there were Romanian personnel running the [Nazi] concentration camps, and no one knows who was responsible for the 2,000 people who were assassinated during the dictatorship,” she said, calling for the state archives to be opened. “No one talks about it. And history is repeating itself: in Romania today there is terrible anti-Semitism. The people from the old system are still there, and very active. They know each other, they protect each other. Why?” she asked. “What happened? It’s so important to know what happened.”