Herta Müller
Nadirs (Niederungen)
Trans. and with an afterword by Sieglinde Lug
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Pp. 122. $13.00

Reviewed by Irena E. Fürhoff

Nadirs (Niederungen), a collection of short stories, has finally been translated into English. The stories were originally published in 1984 by Rotbuch Verlag in West Berlin, following Herta Müller's years of struggle with Romanian censors under Ceaucescu's dictatorship. After the uncensored manuscript found its way to the West, Müller won almost immediate recognition and respect for her work in Germany. She holds prestigious prizes, including the Marieluise-Fleisser Prize (1990), the Kleist Prize (1994), and the European Literary Prize "Aristeion" (1995). Born in 1953, the author grew up as part of a German-speaking minority in the Banat region of Romania. She left the country in 1987 after the years of humiliation and persecution that followed her critical writings about life under the dictatorship. She has since lived in Berlin and Hamburg. Müller's debut collection, Nadirs, was followed by numerous other texts, such as Der Mensch ist ein Grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Passport, 1989) and Herztier (The Land of Green Plums, 1994/1996), to name only the few that have been translated into English.

The title story, "Nadirs," is central to the collection and depicts the bleak reality of rural life in Romania under Ceauçescu's regime of horror. The brutality of the regime is reflected in the peasants' cruelty and the absence of humanity in everyday life as witnessed through the eyes of a child. With her individualistic style, the author turns the texts into prose poems. The poetry clashes with details used to describe fear, for example, in suppressed sexuality as a signum for the inability of communication in fascist Romania: "And when they approach the closets they look up to the ceiling so that they won't see themselves naked because in every room of the house anything can happen that you would call shameful or impure" (47). The aestheticized ugliness, which becomes possible through interweaving drastic descriptions of human interaction with beautiful images from nature, captivates the reader, despite the painful content. Grotesque descriptions of peasant life in a small village act as a metaphor for the oppression of dictatorship. The text implies a summary of fascism: the absence of humanism, the absence of communication, in short, the lack of appreciation for life.

Critics of Müller's work often point out its autobiographical aspect. But it would be too narrow to sum up Müller's work as mere autobiography. Memories, whether they are personal or not, appear in the texts as the starting point of aesthetic explorations of oppression and cruelty, scenarios of murderous animal realms, which appear to be permeated with poetic, dreamlike images.

Having read the text in the original German, I found myself wondering who could master a translation that would convey the intricacies of Müller's metonymic metaphors. The sudden appearance of words in unfamiliar semantic contexts turns her texts into sensual landscapes of beauty and pain. The translator, Sieglinde Lug, has accomplished this in a highly convincing manner and is able to give the reader a taste of Müller's unique language, which Müller herself described as mitgebrachte Sprache, "language brought along." Hopefully, more texts by Herta Müller will be translated into English, as she deserves to be widely read.