Friday, February 18, 2011

Atemschaukel ("Everything") by Herta Müller

(this is part 2 of a book post, part 1 is online here: currently reading: "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

2 books, from 2 continents. both are dealing with war, and the hardship it brings on so many levels, the way it disrupts families, regions, futures. the approach of both books: history, seen through personal lives. another parallel: both books are written based on oral memory.

Atemschaukel by Herta Müller
the english title of this book is: "Everything I Possess I Carry With Me". very different from the original German one, which is on the poetic side, and literally translated means "Breath_swing"- "Atemschaukel".

the first time i read Herta Müller was in November 2009, after she was awarded the nobel prize in literature "for depicting the landscape of the dispossessed with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose."

back then, i read her novel 'Der Fuch war damals schon der Jäger' ('Always, the Fox was the Hunter') - it describes life in Romania under Ceausescu's totalitarian regime, written after she was allowed to leave Romania in 1987. after reading it, i got curious for more of her writing, and came across her poetry collectoin "Die Blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen" ("the pale gentlemen with the mocca cups") it showed a different facet of her work: collage poems, created with cut-out words, pieced together in new ways with a touch of humour and a noir undercurrent.

and now, "Atemschaukel". which leads to a place of pain: a russian work camp in the years after the second world war. it's based on the memories of Oskar Pastior, a friend of Müller. they met regularly to talk about that time. the idea was to create a book together. then Pastior died, and Müller preserved the memory that otherwise would have been lost in this novel, which takes the reader into the cold, harsh, yet also human place. from the books i read from her, this is the one that is easiest to access, but also most painful to read.

here's the start of the official book description:
I know you’ll come back’. These are the words the grandmother of seventeen-year-old Leopold Auberg says to him the night he is collected by Russian soldiers for deportation to a labour camp in the Ukraine. (more: Everything/Atemschaukel)

and here's a passage from a longer blog review that includes some of the personal background:
Müller kindly provides the bare facts in an afterword, telling us that all Romanian-Germans between the age of 17 and 45 were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Red Army arrived in fascist Romania, which capitulated and declared war on Germany. The poet Oskar Pastior and Müller’s own mother were among these deportees, but their experiences remained taboo in Romanian society. Pastior and Müller had planned to write the novel together, based on his memories and interviews with ex-prisoners from Müller’s village in Romania. His sudden death in 2006 threw her off course for a year before she could settle down to translate her copious notes into the novel. Atemschaukel details five years in the camp and a short period afterwards, finally relating Leo’s escape from a loveless marriage in Romania to Austria.
(more: Herta Müller by Katy Derbyshire, Berlin)

a twist of truth
the novel was published in 2009, the same year Müller was awared the Nobel Prize. and then, in 2010, life came up with a bitter twist. a historian discovered that Pastior was a Securitate informant, and spied on colleagues and friends. it was shocking news for all his friends, especially for Herta Müller. she described her reaction and also the situation of Pastior in a newspaper interview which was translated in a blog:

"My first reaction was surprise, and anger. It was a slap in the face. The more details Stefan Sienerth and now Ernest Wichner told me, the more horrified I became. The dossiers show the Romania of the fifties and sixties like a very dark painting. The jails were full. Pastior, just returned from 5 years in the camps, worked as a box-assembler and construction worker, now could finally study in Bucharest. He wanted back to normality, he tried and take his own life into his own hands with a tired, stubborn obstinacy. But they confiscated it once again. The documents show him surrounded on all sides. Several university professors also spy on him. The main fink goes all the way to denunciation. His reports are so vile that one shudders. He was homosexual, like Pastior. One asks oneself if he was taking revenge on personal grounds.

After surviving the work camps, Pastior became an enemy of the State, because the five years of torture made him write some seven poems about it, poems that he was in deep need of. These poems were twisted into a noose: “anti-soviet” was enough. In order to protect himself against arrest, Pastior signed an Securitate-declaration. Returned from camp he now totally free, rather than just freed. My second reaction on Pastior as Securitate agent was sympathy. And the more I contemplate the details of the affair, the more it becomes grief."
- more: blog: Nomadics/Pastior / article list: Liquida/Pastior

it's almost as if real life added a second part and layer to the novel. later more details on Pastiors activities were revealed, including that Pastior was probably jointly responsible for the suicide of the poet Georg Hoprich in 1969.

in a novel, the reader might have wished for a happy ending, for a scene where poetry eventually helps to free the characters from the wounds of a totalitarian regimes. but in real life, things are different. and all of us who never had to live through the open and subtle pressures of a totalitarian system are living on the lucky side of life's options.

(more on Herta Müller in this blog: "Der Fuchs/The Fox" + "Mokkatassen / Mocca cups")

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