Herta Müller's Nobel Lecture

HertaMHere is the opening of Herta Müller — the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature —’s acceptance speech. You can read the whole lecture here.

December 7, 2009

Every word knows something of a vicious circle

DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate to our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken: matter-of-factly, in the tone of a command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.

Twenty years later I had been on my own in the city a long time and was working as a translator in a manufacturing plant. I would get up at five a.m.; work began at six-thirty. Every morning the loudspeaker blared the national anthem into the factory yard; at lunch it was the workers’ choruses. But the workers simply sat over their meals with empty tinplate eyes and hands smeared with oil. Their food was wrapped in newspaper. Before they ate their bit of fatback, they first scraped the newsprint off the rind. Two years went by in the same routine, each day like the next.

In the third year the routine came to an end. Three times in one week a visitor showed up at my office early in the morning: an enormous, thick-boned man with sparkling blue eyes—a colossus from the Securitate.

The first time he stood there, cursed me, and left.

The second time he took off his windbreaker, hung it on the key to the cabinet, and sat down. That morning I had brought some tulips from home and arranged them in a vase. The man looked at me and praised me for being such a keen judge of character. His voice was slippery. I felt uneasy. I contested his praise and assured him that I understood tulips, but not people. Then he said maliciously that he knew me better than I knew tulips. After that he draped his windbreaker over his arm and left.

The third time he sat down but I stayed standing, because he had set his briefcase on my chair. I didn’t dare move it to the floor. He called me stupid, said I was a shirker and a slut, as corrupted as a stray bitch. He shoved the tulips close to the edge of the desk, then put an empty sheet of paper and a pen in the middle of the desktop. He yelled at me: Write. Without sitting down, I wrote what he dictated—my name, date of birth and address. Next, that I would tell no one, no matter how close a friend or relative, that I… and then came the terrible word: colaborezI am collaborating. At that point I stopped writing. I put down the pen and went to the window and looked out onto the dusty street, unpaved and full of potholes, and at all the humpbacked houses. On top of everything else this street was called Strada Gloriei—Glory Street. On Glory Street a cat was sitting in a bare mulberry tree. It was the factory cat with the torn ear. And above the cat the early morning sun was shining like a yellow drum. I said: N-am caracterul—I don’t have the character for this. I said it to the street outside. The word CHARACTER made the Securitate man hysterical. He tore up the sheet of paper and threw the pieces on the floor. Then he probably realized he would have to show his boss that he had tried to recruit me, because he bent over, picked up the scraps and tossed them into his briefcase. After that he gave a deep sigh and, defeated, hurled the vase with the tulips against the wall. As it shattered it made a grinding sound, as though the air had teeth. With his briefcase under his arm he said quietly: You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river. I said as if to myself: If I sign that, I won’t be able to live with myself anymore, and I’ll have to do it on my own. So it’s better if you do it. By then the office door was already open and he was gone. And outside on the Strada Gloriei the factory cat had jumped from the tree onto the roof of the building. One branch was bouncing like a trampoline.

The next day the tug of war began. They wanted me out of the factory. Every morning at 6:30 I had to report to the director. The head of the official labor union and the party secretary were also in his office. Just like my mother once asked: DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF, the director now asked every morning: Have you found another job? Every morning I gave the same answer: I’m not looking for one, I like it here in the factory, I’d like to stay here until I retire.

One morning I came to work and found my thick dictionaries lying on the floor of the hall outside my office. I opened the door; an engineer was sitting at my desk. He said: People are supposed to knock before they enter a room. This is my place, you have no business here. I couldn’t go home; any unexcused absence would have given them a pretext to fire me. I no longer had an office, so now I really had to make sure I came to work; under no circumstances could I fail to be there.

My friend, whom I told everything as we walked home down the pitiful Strada Gloriei, cleared a corner of her desk for me, at first. But one morning she stood outside her office and said: I can’t let you in. Everyone is saying you’re an informer. The harassment was passed down; the rumor was set into circulation among my colleagues. That was the worst. You can defend yourself against an attack, but there’s nothing you can do against libel. Every day I prepared myself for anything, including death. But I couldn’t cope with this perfidy. No preparation made it bearable. Libel stuffs you with filth; you suffocate because you can’t defend yourself. In the eyes of my colleagues I was exactly what I had refused to become. If I had spied on them they would have trusted me without the slightest hesitation. In essence they were punishing me because I had spared them.

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