Literary Shelf

Herta Muller's Nobel Lecture: My Reading

The title of Herta Muller’s Nobel lecture is, ‘Every Word Knows Something of a Vicious Circle’. It’s a very significant title. First of all, emphasis is laid on every word. Every word is important. Then, every word is not merely a word; it’s loaded with the things it knows. Every word knows something. We can see that the author lays extreme importance on words. Every word is important because every word is pregnant with knowledge. But the final part of the title is the most important because it says a lot about the life vision of this great writer.

When injustice is the way of life, when civil rights, redress or justice are not even distant words, when even dreams have been snatched away from the eyes of the victims; what does one do. When your birth becomes your crime, when your ‘being’ becomes a stigma, what do you do? You write.

Each word knows something but what it knows is ‘vicious’; it’s not only plain ‘vicious’; it’s ‘a vicious circle’. Each word knows a pattern of viciousness; a chain, a web of viciousness. Anything cruel, brutal, nasty, dangerous, violent, wild and immoral can be summed up as vicious. This is how Muller has experienced the world and this is how she describes it. Life and people are not merely ‘bad’; they are vicious. The title defines the victim status of the writer; her uncertainty of what was to come.

It’s sometimes so sad to see what world does to an individual soul. One becomes suspicious, cautious because life brings shocks, brutal experiences. Muller’s mother was taken away to Russia to work as a labor. Muller herself suffered during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime. Her fault was that she was German Romanian, a minority group. Once she decided not to work for the secret police, hell broke loose on her. She was maligned, fired from her job of a translator and was brutally kicked around. She was harassed by the police. Her house was bugged. She had no one to turn to. These women Herta Muller went on to live and live through words. Hers is a clear cut case of survival by words. She lived and she survived simply because her words made her feel alive. This is the importance of words for Herta Muller. No wonder, she gives utmost importance to words.

On a larger scale, Muller’s work stands against every single form of dictatorship and authoritarianism. As is said, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The sheer helplessness of victims of absolute power puts a question on the nature of our species. Was Ceausescu human? The same question can be asked for Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin etc. as well.

But Muller does not go into all that. She remains faithful to human misery; misery of the victims of absolute power. Her lecture begins in a very unconventional manner: ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ This sentence keeps repeating itself throughout the whole of her Nobel Lecture. This is the sentence her mother used to speak to her when she was a child. This sentence stands for her mother’s love towards her. There are innumerable indirect ways in which mothers show affection. Sometimes hard words hide their love. Here a simple question ‘do you have a handkerchief’ shows that the mother cares for her, her mother loves her, her mother is with her. Muller says that anything direct would have been embarrassing for her mother. So she enveloped her love in this question. So much so that the child Herta would deliberately not take her handkerchief, and wait for her mother’s reminder to be reassured of her love.

From this scene we have a sudden crash into the scene of her slavery, her factory days. The hostility of the employer is unabashed. The street where she worked was satirically called ‘Glory Street’. I’m reminded of Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy, the name of a slum in Calcutta. The sarcasm is almost identical. There’s nothing glorious in the street just as the city of joy is actually a city for human shame. As in her prose, so in this lecture, Muller minutely describes the scene, graphically bringing out the details. She leaves the conclusion part with her listeners or readers. In the whole of this lecture, there are very limited conclusive lines that give you the intended message instantly. Most of the time, we have to work our way to the message. And, what is the message? It is again and again the brutality of totalitarian regimes and helplessness of its victims. Muller takes you beyond pain; beyond possible description of pain.

When injustice is the way of life, when civil rights, redress or justice are not even distant words, when even dreams have been snatched away from the eyes of the victims; what does one do. When your birth becomes your crime, when your ‘being’ becomes a stigma, what do you do? You write.

That’s what Muller did in order to survive. Words are not merely words for her. Words are a means of survival, of breathing, of living. That’s the point this Nobel Lecture makes.

Muller goes on to describe her factory days. She belonged to the ethnic minority group. She had refused to spy for the state. Her translator’s job was in jeopardy. Her sitting room was taken away from her. Her friend allowed her to sit with her but even that comfort was taken away from her. One day she arrived for work, her friend told her, ‘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 a 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 cannot 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.’ Just see how ironical the situation is. She is being punished exactly for what she has not done and because she has not done it for the Ceausescu regime. It’s mind-boggling; it’s confusing. You never get simple answers here. That’s the world of Herta Muller.

Muller was reduced to being ‘a staircase wit’ and her office became handkerchief. She relates the use of handkerchief on which she used to sit with the love of her mother. She goes back to the original question of her mother asking ‘do you have a handkerchief’. Ironically this love-loaded question of her mother is now replaced by her boss asking her every morning, ‘Have you found another job?’ The humiliation goes above the brink. She’s isolated. She’s insulted. She’s utterly humiliated. Everybody suspects her of being a spy which she is not. The authorities are after her blood. She cannot leave her job; it’s her bread. What does one do in such a situation? Weeping is never a good option in such circumstances. Muller turns to one big blessing in her life- words. She turns to words just as one turns to another human being. She embraced words, live words, soaked herself in words.

She writes, ‘I was a staircase wit and my office was a handkerchief. My friend joined me on the stairs at lunchtime. We ate together as we had in her office, and before that in mine. From the loudspeaker in the yard the workers' choruses sang about the happiness of the people, as always. My friend ate her lunch and cried over me. I didn't cry. I had to stay tough. For a long time. A few never-ending weeks, until I was dismissed. During the time that I was a staircase wit, I looked up the word stair in the dictionary…’

Muller goes on to describe her discovery in her dictionaries. She says that the parts of the stairs have very poetic names. Human beings have this compulsion the names of their own body parts on machines and their parts- nose, hand, eyebolt etc. She says that perhaps because the work of technicians is so harsh that to make it bearable, they personify the objects of their work.

I find her ‘not crying’ theory quite fascinating. We usually cry in anticipation of loss. We cry in fear. But when the catastrophe has fallen, sometimes the tears dry. Her friend is crying because she still has an office and her work but she is afraid that the fate of Muller might not fall on her. It is pure fear which brings tears in the eyes of the friend. Muller herself does not cry. She says that she had to remain tough.

In the Nobel Lecture and otherwise in her writing as well, Muller shows a deep sense for details. She has an eye for details. Sentences after sentences, she goes on to describe ‘handkerchief’. She describes the culture of handkerchiefs in her home- their varieties and uses. It is as though life itself has been wrapped in handkerchiefs. ‘Does every job in every field follow the same principle as my mother's question about the handkerchief? When I was little we had a handkerchief drawer at home, which was always partitioned into two rows, with three stacks apiece: On the left the men's handkerchiefs for my father and grandfather. On the right the women's handkerchiefs for my mother and grandmother. In the middle the children's handkerchiefs for me. The drawer was a family portrait in handkerchief format. The men's handkerchiefs were the biggest, with dark stripes along the edges in brown, gray or Bordeaux. The women's handkerchiefs were smaller, and their edges were light blue, red, or green. The children's handkerchiefs were the smallest: borderless white squares painted with flowers or animals. All three handkerchief types were divided into those for everyday use, in the front row, and those reserved for Sunday, in the back. On Sundays your handkerchief had to match the color of your clothes, even if it wasn't visible. No other object in the house, including ourselves, was ever as important to us as the handkerchief. Its uses were universal: sniffles; nosebleeds; hurt hand, elbow or knee; crying, or biting into it to suppress the crying. A cold wet handkerchief on the forehead for headaches. Tied at the four corners it protected your head against sunburn or rain. If you had to remember something you made a knot to prompt your memory. For carrying heavy bags you wrapped it around your hand. When the train pulled out of the station you waved it to say good-bye. And because the word for tear in our Banat dialect sounds like the Romanian word for train, the squeaking of the railcars on the tracks always sounded to me like crying. In the village if someone died at home they immediately tied a handkerchief around his chin so that his mouth stayed closed when the rigor mortis set in. In the city if a person collapsed on the side of the road, some passerby would always take a handkerchief and cover his face, so that the handkerchief became the dead man's first place of peace.’

One can see why this woman is a great writer. A small piece of linen, a handkerchief has assumed such huge dimensions for her. Underlying all details, the point for me is that the core of life is love. Love has to like a mother’s love – unconditional, flowing, endless… It takes time in life and lots of wisdom to realize that love lies at the center of life. Ironically enough, one realizes the importance of a thing when it is gone. This is exactly the case with Muller. Loveless, harsh, cruel life has taught her the value of love.

The pain and helplessness of the dispossessed spill over in Muller’s words. She mentions Oskar Pastior in her lecture who happens to be an important person in her life. ‘In January 1945, The Russians demanded that all Romanian Germans between 17 and 45 be relocated to labor camps in the Soviet Union to rebuild the devastated country. Muller’s mother was sent there for five years. Half a century later, Muller spent many hours talking with another Romanian victim of that decree, the poet Oskar Pastior. She filled four notebooks with what he told her and planned a book about it with him until he died, suddenly, in 2006. “A year passed before I could bring myself to say farewell to the We and write a novel alone.” Muller explains in an afterword to ‘The Hunger Angel’. (Richard Stern. Jan 8, 2012. ‘To the Bone’. The New York Times)

Just that one meeting with the poet Pastior occupies such an important place in Muller’s vision that she talks about him in her Nobel Lecture, ‘Later, when I was meeting with Oskar Pastior so I could write about his deportation to the Soviet labor camp, he told me that an elderly Russian mother had given him a handkerchief made of white batiste. Maybe you will both be lucky, said the Russian woman, and you will come home soon and so will my son. Her son was the same age as Oskar Pastior and as far away from home as he was, but in the opposite direction, she said, in a penal battalion. Oskar Pastior had knocked on her door, a half-starved beggar wanting to trade a lump of coal for a little bit of food. She let him in and gave him some hot soup. And when she saw his nose dripping into the bowl, she gave him the white batiste handkerchief that no one had ever used before. With its a-jour border, and stems and rosettes precisely stitched with silk thread, the handkerchief was a thing of beauty that embraced as well as wounded the beggar. It was a combination: consolation made of batiste, and a silk-stemmed measure of his decrepitude. For the woman, Oskar Pastior was also a combination: an unworldly beggar in her house and a lost child in the world. Both of these personae were delighted and overwhelmed by the gesture of a woman who was two persons for him as well: an unknown Russian woman and the worried mother with the question: do you have a handkerchief?

Ever since I heard this story I have had a question of my own: is do you have a handkerchief valid everywhere? Does it stretch halfway across the world in the snowy sheen between freezing and thawing? Does it pass between mountains and steppes to cross every border; can it reach all the way into a gigantic empire strewn with penal and labor camps? Is the question do you have a handkerchief impossible to get rid of, even with a hammer and sickle, even with all the camps of Stalinist re-education?’

This is Herta Muller. She directly takes on dictators. She is not wary of taking names. She is there to expose the dictators, no matter what the price might be.

For many, this Nobel lecture and much of what Muller has written might appear fragmented. She is not someone who would plainly and logically describe her world view. She goes on just like that- haphazardly, bumping with incidents, sharing her pain and that of others like her. If one is determined to read Muller, one has to first understand her background. Otherwise her words won’t make any sense. Her words would appear disconnected, to say the least. Many have called her out rightly mad. She herself says somewhere that Ceausescu was mad; he made half of Romani mad and it is because of him, Muller is mad.

Muller describes the sad end of her uncle Matz who was brainwashed by Nazis. The tragic narration is again done through dots. Small objects like a photograph, a trumpet and other such ordinary things connect bigger threads of devilishness. ‘… the objects are in orbit and that their deviations reveal a pattern of repetition- a vicious circle, or what we call in German a devil’s circle.’ That is why the title of her lecture says that every word knows a vicious circle.

Words are clearly a tool of living for Herta Muller. Words are at once insufficient to express everything and are all that we are left with in hopeless circumstances. ‘What was happening could no longer be expressed in speech. At most the external accompaniments, but not the totality of the events themselves. That I could only spell out in my head, voicelessly, within the vicious circle of the words during the act of writing. I reacted to the deathly fear with a thirst for life. A hunger for words. Nothing but the whirl of words could grasp my condition. It spelled out what the mouth could not pronounce. I chased after the events, caught up in the words and their devilish circling, until something emerged I had never known before.’

Words create their own worlds. New realities, new logic, new patterns emerge as we write. Writing helps us in understanding our situation. It provides a kind of sanity. Muller reaches an inevitable point where she hints at the word and its meaning. ‘I felt: Every word in your face, knows something of the vicious circle. But doesn't say it. The sound of the words knows that it has no choice but to beguile, because objects deceive with their materials, and feelings mislead with their gestures. The sound of the words, along with the truth this sound invents, resides at the interface, where the deceit of the materials and that of the gestures come together. In writing, it is not a matter of trusting, but rather of the honesty of the deceit.’

Writing, at best, can be honest in deceit. The hunger to convey reality is such that one keeps chasing the essence of it through words but never gets it. This is how the process of writing goes. Words obviously give shape to experiences and in that process create new experiences. Words have their own life. There’s nothing like absolute reality. There’re always angels and perspectives involved. Words are to clarify those diverse points of view. Life itself depends on words in the end. ‘The more that which is written takes from me, the more it shows what was missing from the experience that was lived. Only the words make this discovery, because they didn't know it earlier. And where they catch the lived experience by surprise is where they reflect it best. In the end they become so compelling that the lived experience must cling to them in order not to fall apart. It seems to me that the objects don't know their material, the gestures don't know their feelings, and the words don't know the mouth that speaks them. But to be certain of our own existence, we need the objects, the gestures, and the words. After all, the more words we are allowed to take, the freer we become.’

So, words release us from our mental prisons. The whole of Muller’s lecture is a reply to dictators. It’s an effort to stand up against any form of authoritarianism. If interpreted further, this speech underlines the importance freedom of speech. Words are so important. A human being needs freedom of speech. Free expression, in fact, makes one a human being.

This is indeed a remarkable speech though difficult to understand and still more difficult to be enjoyed. One has to be really interested in order to get into it otherwise the speech leaves one out. Muller has spoken for herself and others like her. She has talked about the utter vulnerability of a human being in situations of slavery and oppression. She has underlined ‘the acute solitude of a human being’.



More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Comment For us, students, you are no less than Herta Muller, Prof. Tiwari. It's the teacher in you that enables you to explain things so well and write such flawless, flowing words. Your criticism enhances the value of writer.

22-Apr-2013 01:42 AM

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