Atemschaukel, by Herta Müller, Carl Hanser Verlag, 304 pp, €19.90, ISBN: 978-3446233911
Ich halte die Balance, die Herzschaufel wird zur Schaukel in meiner Hand, wie die Atemschaukel in der Brust.
I hold the balance; the heart-shovel becomes a swing in my hand, like the swing of one’s breath in one’s chest.
The title of this extraordinarily powerful and moving novel translates literally as “Breath Swing”, but it is cited in English as “Everything I Possess I Carry with me”, which is the first line of the text. Apparently, it is under this title that the book will appear in English. (The UK/US rights have been acquired by Granta/Metropolitan, who have published other titles of Müller’s.)
Herta Müller was born in Romania in 1953; her family belonged to a German-speaking minority known as Banat Germans (Banat is a place), and German is her mother tongue. She was persecuted under Ceausescu for non-cooperation with the regime and left Romania in 1987 and settled in Berlin, where she still lives, making her living as a writer and academic.
Most of Müller’s work is concerned with the experience of the German-speaking Transylvanian Saxon minority in Romania, who were subject to cruel persecution by the Russians after World War II, ostensibly in retribution for Nazi war crimes. As the war came to an end, Germans of working age living in Romania were routinely rounded up, deported to labour camps and used as slave labour for the reconstruction of the USSR after the devastation caused by the war. Herta Müller’s own mother, as Müller reveals in the afterword to Atemschaukel, spent five years in a Soviet labour camp, an experience about which she remained silent for the rest of her life.
This documentary novel is based on a series of interviews with labour camp survivors, and particularly with a German-Romanian poet, Oskar Pastior, who himself spent five years in a Soviet camp and is clearly the model for Leopold Auberg (Leo), the novel’s protagonist narrator, a seventeen-year-old German-Romanian who is transported to a camp in Ukraine and spends five years there as a forced labourer. The original plan was for Herta Müller and Oskar Pastior to write this book together, but Pastior died before it was written, so Müller wrote it herself.
Herta Müller first came to the attention of Irish readers when The Land of Green Plums (originally published as Herztier, literally “Heart Beast”) won the IMPAC award back in the late 1990s, and to my knowledge that remains the only one of her novels that has ever been easily available in English. (It has recently been reissued by Granta.) A handful of her books have been translated, but, as you might expect, they were published by small literary imprints and have not had wide currency.
I say “as you might expect”, because that is generally the case with translations: English-speakers are unforgiving of foreign names on book covers; add a term like “Transylvanian Saxons”; indeed, throw in a reference to anywhere east of about Klagenfurt; stick an umlaut on the author’s name – and you’re sunk. (Clever of old Stig Larsson and Henning Mankell to have such nice unintimidating names – if you must be a foreigner, it seems, the least you can do is be “pronounceable”.)
One counterbalance to English-speaking prejudice just might be the Nobel Prize for Literature. (That lights a special glow in the hearts of Irish readers, of course – not only do we recognise this accolade: we feel we almost own it.) Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in October, to the surprise, even the dismay, of many. Opinions are divided about her work, but to my mind Müller is unquestionably a world-class writer, an extraordinarily poetic, passionate and uncompromising voice with something important to say to the human condition.
Müller won the Nobel Prize, but Atemschaukel itself did not win this year’s Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize, the Booker Prize for Germany, so to speak), though it was shortlisted for this popular award. Doubtless the presence on the judging panel of one of the book’s harshest critics did not help Atemschaukel’s cause. Iris Radisch, writing in Die Zeit (published online under the startling headline “Kitsch or world Literature?”) criticised it for insincerity:
There is an unserious, disengaged virtuosity [about Atemschaukel] that does not do justice to this serious author and her undoubtedly deeply felt outrage. The era of Gulag literature that takes our breath away has reached its natural conclusion, and it cannot be revived at second-hand with harp music and angel songs.
These last words are a reference to the recurring image in Atemschaukel of the “hunger angel” – a personification of hunger that is imagined as a kind of demented guardian angel who haunts each of the inmates of the camp. Müller’s ironic use of the term “hunger angel” might, I suppose, conjure up a seraph in celestial robes playing the harp, but it is pretty clear that this one is a heartless beast who represents unrelenting suffering:
Always the hunger is there.
Because it is there, it comes when it wants to and how it wants to.
The causative principle is the handiwork of the hunger-angel.
When he comes, he comes in force.
The cement and the hunger-angel … are in cahoots. Hunger tears the pores apart and crawls in. When it’s inside, the cement forms a seal over it, and you are cemented.
The heart-shovel has a scoop as big as two heads side by side. It is in the shape of a heart and concave, big enough to accommodate five kilos of coal or the whole of the hunger-angel’s backside.
The hunger-angel puts my cheeks on his chin, he sets my breath swinging. The breath swing is a delirium, and what a delirium!
This hunger-angel is self-evidently no heavenly harpist. (The quotations above are separate, taken at random from various places in the novel.)
Die Zeit published an article by Michael Naumann in contradiction of Radisch’s, under the same heading of “Kitsch or World Literature?” Where Radisch sees kitsch (though to be accurate, she does not use that actual word – it appears only in the heading), Naumann sees a masterpiece:
Saying the unsayable about everyday fear in a dictatorship – fear of arrest, torture and murder in peculiar ways – is this author’s art. She looks with the eyes of the victim on the political masters of terror, and calls it by its name. She is one of the significant imaginative witnesses of our lamentable times.
A more mundane question is raised in Der Spiegel, in an article overviewing the novels on the Deutscher Buchpreis shortlist, before the award was made:
Herta Müller’s novel Atemschaukel, for all it is concerned with life in a communist prison camp, uses a language that is far too elaborate to appeal to a wide audience.
If Iris Radisch is concerned that the language is too flowery –as an English writer might have put it – too self-consciously poetic, for the subject matter, the Spiegel journalist considers the language “allzu elaboriert” – far too elaborate – not for the subject matter, but for a mass audience, and it is certainly true that this is not a novel that is likely to have wide appeal. It is an immensely rewarding read, but it is undoubtedly challenging.
The Spiegel commentator’s remarks may be rather banal, but his comment raises a question about what it is that readers expect of novels, a question that Müller herself raises in the first chapter of Atemschaukel. This chapter, “On packing”, describes the protagonist’s pathetically careful packing of his shabby collection of borrowed and made-over items into a makeshift suitcase for the journey to the camp. Among these items is a handful of books: a copy of Faust, one of Zarathustra, and two poetry books – a large anthology and a particular collection. “No novels,” he remarks, “because novels you read just once, then never again.”
Which is not true, of course, or at least it is only true of the general kind of novel, the kind with mass appeal. What an unfortunate word we use to label prose fiction of a certain length! – a word brittle with superficiality and suggestive of the throwaway. The word used in German, as in other European languages, is Roman. If “novel” suggests triviality, then Roman, with its close relationship to “romance”, is not much of an improvement. (Perhaps it is reading too much into this throwaway remark of Leo’s to make a connection between the word Roman – the word he uses to denote throwaway literature – and the word Romania. But there it is.)
Unlike the kind of novel that Leo has no place for in his luggage, there is very little narrative suspense in Atemschaukel. The narrative structure has been reduced to a thin, chronological line that begins with Leo’s life before his arrest, follows him on his journey to the camp, remains with him for his five years of forced labour, and then comes with him out of the camp and back into his life afterwards. There are chronological markers along the way, which give the reader something to hold onto: we are told that such and such an incident happened in the first year, or that we are now in the third year, or the fifth. But the movement forward in time that is marked by those occasional temporal indicators is otherwise barely perceptible. It’s not that kind of novel.
Nor is it character-driven. Characters other than the protagonist/narrator, Leopold, emerge from time to time – the kindly Trudi Pelikan, the camp nurse; the treacherous camp foreman Tur Prikulitsch; the simple-minded Planton-Kati; Albert Gion with whom Leo works the night shift – but they are shadowy figures rather than the rounded, developing characters of conventional fiction, and they people the narrative rather than drive it. The narrator acknowledges this when he says that his strategy for overcoming the agony of his situation, if it is successful, will reduce people to cyphers:
Then there will be no more people living in my head, only objects. Then I will push them around on the sore spot, as one pushes one’s feet in a dance.
Even Leo himself is something of an enigma. We are privy to his reminiscences, his ruminations, his grim experiences, and the whole novel is relayed in his voice, in turn lyrical, meditative, hallucinatory and distant, closed, matter-of-fact – but though the reader can sympathise with his sufferings, s/he is not invited to empathise with him personally. There are occasional incidents where Leo’s emotional life comes to the surface – in particular the scene where he receives a postcard from home announcing the birth of a baby to his parents, and he is devastated at the thought that they have, as he sees it, replaced him in his absence and thereby made him insignificant – but the reader is generally kept at an emotional distance from the character.
The distance that is maintained between character and reader is not amenable to psychological explanation. It’s not really – or not only – that Leo is cool because his emotions are flattened by his situation. Again, it’s that this is not that kind of novel. This is not a Bildungsroman in the unusual setting of a labour camp. It’s a book not about its protagonist but about the labour camp itself and the fear, pain, hunger, exhaustion and cold experienced by its inmates and the emotional, psychological and physical deprivation inflicted on them.
It is of course impossible to know how much of the novel as written by Müller is directly taken from what Pastior told her about his experiences. But knowing that it is based on interviews with someone whose personal experience it presents gives the reader a useful strategy for reading the otherwise perhaps unapproachable prose. The voice of the narrator is strong, like the voice of the interviewee in a television or radio documentary, and it is ruminative, speculative, reflective and reminiscent. Like a documentary, the story is told in a fragmentary way, not so much narrated as allowed to accumulate through a series of short chapters, unfolding through a combination of reminiscence, anecdote and lyrical passages. There is a story here, but it is not all joined up, and there are very few causal relationships between events. Or at least, the causal relationships are quotidian and haphazard, rather than the narratively constructed events of plot:
The naked truth of the matter is that the lawyer Paul Gast stole his wife’s, Heidrun Gast’s, soup out of her bowl, until she could no longer get up, and so died, because she couldn’t do otherwise; just as he stole the soup because his hunger could not do otherwise either; just as he wore her coat with the Peter Pan collar and the scuffed rabbit-fur lapels and couldn’t help the fact that she had died; just as she couldn’t help it that she hadn’t been able to get up; as indeed our singer Loni Mich, who later wore the coat, couldn’t help the fact that a coat had become available through the death of the lawyer’s wife; … just as the winter couldn’t help being icy cold, and the coat couldn’t help being warm; no more than the days could help being a chain of causes and effects; as the causes and effects couldn’t help it either that they were the naked truth, although it was all about a coat. (Semi-colons added.)
The structure is almost anthological; the story accumulates through a series of narrated incidents, but each incident is largely independent of the other incidents in the book. The most accessible chapters are anecdotal. They present short scenes or incidents from camp life: the theft of a hoarded piece of bread; an encounter with a Russian peasant woman who gives Leo some soup and the present of a handkerchief; the story of a woman who, having been passed a message concealed inside a partially scooped-out potato, ignores the message and eats the potato; the cutting of the hair of a corpse before burial, so that it can be used to stuff draught excluders.
It seems odd to say this about a character who narrates a whole novel, and who gives such extensive and detailed descriptions of physical things, but Leo is essentially laconic – by which I mean that he leaves large gaps in the narrative, and when he does tell a story, he tells it in a matter-of-fact, documentary tone, in the voice of a witness, not of an interpreter. The result is at the same time powerfully anti-sentimental and deeply moving. Our emotions are evoked but never directed. The horror of one inmate’s suicide, for example, by throwing herself into a pit of mortar, is conveyed not through expressions of horror but through a series of unrelenting details about her death, ending with the image of her cap riding up to reveal the scabbed-over louse-bites on her shorn scalp. Her fellow-inmates watch in stricken horror, but in the end, what they most regret about her death is that she was buried in her clothes, “when there are living people who are freezing”. No gloss on the event could be more horrifying than that matter-of-fact observation. This apparent coldness is explained by one of the five rubrics into which Leo condenses what he has learnt from his experience: “The labour camp we is singular.” Or, as he says elsewhere:
You can become a monster if you don’t cry. What keeps me from that, if I am not that already, is not much, at most, the sentence “I know you will come back.”
That last sentence, spoken to Leo by his grandmother on the night he is arrested, recurs through the novel, as the thing that sustains him through the whole five years.
Language and memory are the only things left to the prisoners. Their very bodies are disappearing from overwork and lack of nourishment – “the less body you have, the more it is used to punish you”. But they can reconstruct the details of their former lives, even if they torture themselves in the process:
When the hunger is greatest, we talk about our childhood and about food. The women talk more extensively about food than the men, and the women from the villages most extensively of all. With them, recipes are in at least three acts, like plays. The tension rises as various aspects of the ingredients are discussed. … Telling recipes is a greater art than telling jokes. The punchline has to make an impact, even though it is not funny. Here in the camp, a joke begins with “You take …”
Interspersed with the anecdotal, more conventionally narrative chapters are lyrical ones where narrative structure is replaced by an ekphrastic, densely descriptive principle. There are dreamlike sequences, litanies and meditations on objects (a shovel, a piece of cloth), creatures (lice, bed bugs, prairie dogs) and substances (coal, cement, chemicals, cinders) that embody Leo’s life of enforced labour. We are presented with detailed accounts of things that are brimming with meaning, but it is up to us to divine what it is that they intend or portend. This author is certainly not going to tell us.
Some years ago, Andrea Köhler wrote of Müller’s work:
Writing that is not pivoted on pain is tedious. Here it [pain] is anything but expressed. It is physically there.
Müller’s extraordinary melding of the documentary and the lyrical presents experience with convincing physical directness. It is as if, by the sheer intensity of the lyrical gaze, she invents a series of objective correlatives whose unstated evocation of emotion is all the more powerful for being presented rather than represented. And so we get an account of a life lived in intense relationship to things, to physical experience and to a world brutally reduced.
Leo is pleased when he is sent to work at a distance from the camp, partly because the journey itself creates a space of time that he can treasure, because as long as you are travelling, you are not working, but also because of the opportunities it gives him to pick up evidence, however humble, of human habitation – nettles, for example, which his grandmother told him grow only where people have settled. It is not the nettles that interest him, though; he is hungry for evidence of civilisation itself:
I saw the people in their yards. I wanted to see people who did not live in the camp, people who had a home, a yard, a room with a carpet, perhaps even a carpet beater. Anywhere that carpets are beaten, I thought, you can believe in peace. Life is civilised there, there people are left in peace.
This book demands a lot of its reader. You have to read its chapters as you would read poems, slowly, attentively, one at a time, and with a suspension of narrative expectation. And you have to yield to Leo’s extraordinarily creative strategy for survival, which depends on a use of language and imagination to transform the brutalised world in which he finds himself:
Because I could not avoid chemical substances, was indeed in their thrall – they consumed our shoes, our clothes, our hands, our mucous membranes – I decided to reassign meanings to the odours of the factory to my own advantage.
I talked myself into aromatic highways and persuaded myself of something alluring about every path on the premises: naphthalene, shoe polish, furniture wax, chrysanthemums, glycerine soap, camphor, heart of pine, alum, lemon blossom. I managed to become pleasantly addicted, because I did not want to allow these substances to have poisonous power over me. … What was pleasant was that chemical substances could be used, like hunger words and eating words, as swear words, and that these words were substantially necessary to me.
The transformative power that he attributes to language is ultimately what saves Leo from brutalisation. Whether that represents an over-elaboration of language or a second-hand romanticisation of horror the reader must judge for him ‑ or herself.
Siobhán Parkinson is a novelist, translator and publisher who works mainly in the field of children’s literature (www.siobhanparkinson.com). This essay was initially published in the Dublin Review of Books of Winter 2009, together with a companion piece on the background of Romania’s German minority by Bucharest journalist Ion Ionita, http://www.drb.ie/essays/a-discontinued-people