I had the presence of mind to buy a copy of Atemschaukel before Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize and it sold out, as it was originally my favourite for the German Book Prize. I didn’t start reading it, however, until the international press started Herta Who-ing. Peter Englund described it as “absolutely breathtaking” – and I would tend to agree.
The novel is narrated by Leopold Auberg, a young homosexual from the German minority in Romania, and opens early in 1944. 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.
I’ve recently read a few comments to the tune that Herta Müller was only awarded the prize because a) she’s a German revisionist or b) she’s a rabid anti-communist beloved of conservative politicians. I shall dismiss b) outright as ridiculous – as if anyone would expect her to stand up for Ceausescu’s regime, and as if she had any sway over who reads her books (or instructs their aides to read her books, as I find it difficult to imagine Merkel and Couchner curling up with Herztier). Stupid accusation a), however, that Müller is in some way making Germans into innocent victims in Atemschaukel, is refuted in the very first pages of the novel.
The narrator, as yet incognito as we learn of his first illicit sexual encounters, tells us how the prisoners travelled to the Soviet camp: in cattle trucks, instantly evoking the fate of the Jews under the Nazis. Yet these cattle trucks are equipped with makeshift benches and toilets, and the Romanians give them food to eat on the journey – a frozen goat, which they initially mistake for firewood and laughingly burn. As we learn later, the Germans in Romania led a kind of charmed life during the war, a time of cucumber salad in the garden, porcelain and fur coats, largely unaffected by world events. Indeed, for the narrator, the Soviet camp initially seems like a route to escape from his petit-bourgeois, nationalist family. These are not innocents but Nazis or at least turners of blind eyes, and Müller treats the family itself with little love, just as they give little love to their lost son.
Given this situation, it would be almost impossible to create a sober account of life in the gulag, as we are familiar with from Solzhenitsyn or Margarete Buber-Neumann. And this is anything but a sober account. It is a dizzying, poetic, punch-drunk account that sent me reeling, shocked at what was being told but constantly marvelling at the writing.
The narrator’s voice is strangely naïve, and the language has a slight patina – this is the 1940s after all, but I imagined I heard the old-fashioned German of the Banat Swabians and the Siebenbürger Saxons too, dialects frozen in time since German settlers moved to Romania centuries ago. And he describes the camp as a budding poet, a young man who packs Faust and poetry in his suitcase but never reads them, instead trading them page by page as cigarette paper for salt and sugar, flour and a lice comb.
Yet as Leo tells us about this place of grim survival where the words on the paper count for nothing, Müller’s language creates images of extraordinary beauty. There are nature poems here, odes to Ukrainian weeds, there are poems dedicated to hunger and release. Leo finds escape and comfort in words, unfamiliar Russian sounds that take on new meaning to German ears – a device Müller has played with in the past. A particular type of coal is referred to as “hasoweh”, which reminds the narrator of a wounded hare in German. This poor creature crops up at various points, its effect gradually becoming more and more cynical as Leo loses his capacity for compassion.
Another device familiar from Müller’s earlier work is her use of curious compound nouns, such as the Atemschaukel of the title (breath-swing). I have to admit I found this aspect rather opaque and certainly can’t attempt to explain why the book has this title. As such, I don’t share the criticism of the deviating titles of Müller’s English translations – I find they make the books more accessible at first glance. Everything I Own I Carry With Me is a key sentence in the novel, occurring at the beginning and the end and summing up both Leo’s life and the itinerancy present – I’m told – in much of Müller’s previous writing. Here and elsewhere, suitcases are packed and unpacked, playing a major and symbolic role.
As the suffering reaches its peak in the “skin-and-bone time” towards the middle of Atemschaukel, the narration becomes increasingly erratic. Leo introduces us to a world ruled by hunger angels, where everyday objects take on extreme significance: crusts of bread, lumps of coal, combs, shovels, scarves, photographs – many of the chapters bear the names of these objects. Life revolves around them, losing all sense of time, just as the novel’s structure is only loosely chronological. By a certain point, all human relations have broken down and survival depends solely upon insentient objects.
This is, there are no two ways about it, a great novel. I think Herta Müller made a wise decision to move further away from her previous writing, which was mainly autobiographically tinged. I get the impression people were starting to write her off as the woman who only ever writes about Germans under Ceausescu. In Atemschaukel, she has more than proved that her range is wider, and that her curious linguistic slant can be just as well applied to matters further afield.