Another Obscure Nobel Prize Winner for Literature

Posted on October 8, 2009

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a little know author, Herta Muller.

Ms. Müller joins the ranks of Nobel laureates — most recently the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio last year and the Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 — whose work, at the time of their announcements, anyway, was little known and little translated here.

Only 5 of Ms. Muller's some 20 books have been translated into English. Those translations are suddenly in great demand and short supply; the Nobel committee has given American readers another unexpected and vaguely exotic homework assignment.

The choice of Ms. Muller, whose dark, closely observed and sometimes violent work often explores exile and the grim quotidian realities of life under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, may feed the suspicions that the Nobel Committee has, not for the first time, put political considerations ahead of writerly ones.

Ms. Muller's story is undeniably fascinating. She was born in 1953 in a German-speaking Romanian town. During World War II her father served in the Waffen-SS. Her mother spent years in a work camp in what is now Ukraine. Ms. Muller was later fired from a job as a translator at a Ukrainian machine factory after refusing to be an informant for the secret police. She left Romania for Germany in 1987, along with her husband, Richard Wagner. She has often spoken out against oppression and was critical of East German writers who did collaborate with state authorities.

The selection is seen by many as another slap in the face to American authors who vividly remember Nobel secretary, Horace Engdahl's, comments last year. Engdahl said that Europe is the center of the center of the literary world, not the U.S. and that Americans "don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

In addition to being ignorant, Engdahl is a pompous ass.


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