Monday, 19 October 2009

Herta Müller: Atemschaukel/Everything I Own...

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.

11 comments:

Lyn said...

Thanks for this, it sounds really fascinating - can't wait for my copy to turn up finally so I can get stuck in...

On the translation of titles - I'm ambivalent, I think, rather than necessarily critical, and in this case I do agree that Everything I Possess I Carry With Me works better (without having read the novel yet, I should say).

In other cases I think it's a shame the English translations aren't allowed the same level of strangeness as the German. (That's a marketing rather than translation choice I guess, but linked to the perception of translated literature.) They are odd in German already - which reads differently in English/translation, admittedly, but the normalising titles lose much of the effect of the original.

I'm not sure direct translations would work either though - for the reasons you say: esp. the compound nouns are very dense and don't give any idea of what the novel is about - so for me The Land of Green Plums isn't a bad compromise. I'm personally less keen on the one-word English equivalents for the longer phrases (Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt usw), they flatten the text somehow.

In other languages though the odd titles are retained - in French they keep Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger and both French and Spanish keep Der Mensch... in full.

Spake a trainspotter...

kjd said...

Hmm, Lyn, I don't mind that marketing trick. The books have all had excellent translators and are no doubt wonderfully odd on the inside, but you still have to get people to buy them in the first place. And - just imagine you're not a feted Herta Müller expert and media commentator here for a moment - would you buy a book called "heart-beast" or "breath-swing"?

But it wasn't just your comments I had in mind, to be honest. There seems to have been a little complaining about unfaithful titles elsewhere, notably the World Literature Forum.

Lyn said...

You're right, the compound nouns are a particularly tricky issue - slightly less unwieldy in German than in English, but odd nonetheless. I'm not sure I would advocate (market) those in either language... they are quite off-putting. The term Herztier is used in the book at least though - is Atemschaukel nowhere to be seen?

I can't say Heart-beast would appeal to me, but at least it is translatable! Atemschaukel on the other hand has me completely stumped... (I keep thinking 'rocking breath', but that's no better at all.)

Maybe it just says something about the different literary contexts that the English titles chosen are so very different. What caught my eye is the discrepancy, which isn't criticism of those choices, more interest in what led to them! certainly wouldn't castigate them for 'unfaithfulness'...

But I do think it's a shame about the longer titles - to me, they are just the right side of odd/poetic, and intriguing too. Somewhere in between Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet and The Appointment would cover all bases.

kjd said...

I could deal with the long titles too, actually, even though you have to cut them off in the middle if you want to write a posting about them. Maybe that's one reason: fear books won't be reviewed if the titles don't fit into the headline format...

The word Atemschaukelis in the book, yes, but I couldn't quite figure out what it means! There's a Herzschaufel too, which enables Leo to survive by working for his bread. I *think* the Atemschaukel is something to do with the rhythmic breathing you have to do when performing manual labour. So swinging breath might not be too far off the mark.

Lyn said...

o my word, a Herzschaufel and an Atemschaukel! (how about heart-fork and breath-work?! heart-scoop and breath-loop...)

For the longer titles I'd be tempted to crop them a little too - Today I Met Myself and Man is a Pheasant (I normally dislike Man for Mensch, but I'm not sure any of the alternatives really sound right here?). And 'The Fox was the Hunter'.

David said...

I haven't read Atemschaukel, but I'm wondering whether the title isn't a nod to fellow Romanian Paul Celan's "Atemwende".

Lyn said...

She certainly references Celan elsewhere (Überall, wo man den Tod gesehen hat. Eine Sommerreise in die Maramuresch, in Barfüßiger Februar, for example). Is that Breathturn in translation?

El guisante arrugado de Mendel said...

How can I get a copy of this book in English? Has it been translated yet? I can only think of Amazon.Thank you.

kjd said...

Patience, egadm. Someone out there is working on the translation as we speak. But it will take a year or so for the whole process to be finished.

nico said...

Thanks so much for this. It makes some justice to all the ignorance around this magnificent author. As a Muller's fan, I am very happy for this award, and will patiently wait for the translations (since i only read in spanish and english). Many thanks!

Moskowitz said...

Hello – I am wondering if there are any English translations of Herta Muller’s essays, where she discusses her writing process.
I am particularly interested in a second volume of essays, Der Teufel sitzt im Spiegel (1991) which includes a series of lectures on "Gedanken zum Schreiben" that Müller held at the University of Paderborn in 1989-1990. The volume includes a number of collages combining image and text. I speak some French and Romanian.

Thank you,
Cetana