STOCKHOLM/BERLIN (Reuters) - Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller won the Nobel literature prize on Thursday, saying Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorship compelled her to write of how a powerful few can dominate and destroy a nation.
The Swedish Academy paid tribute to Mueller “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”, when announcing the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.4 million) award.
Mueller is known for works such as “The Land of Green Plums” which she dedicated to Romanian friends killed under Ceausescu’s Communist rule and “The Appointment” in which a Romanian woman sews notes saying “Marry Me” into men’s suits bound for Italy.
“My writing was always about how a dictatorship arises, how a situation is able to occur where a handful of powerful people dominate a country and the country disappears, and there is only the state left,” Mueller told reporters in Berlin.
Mueller, whose mother was sent to a Soviet work camp for five years, was herself harassed by the Securitate secret police after refusing to become an informer. She left Romania with her husband Richard Wagner in 1987, two years before Ceausescu was overthrown and executed, and now lives in Berlin.
“I think literature always emerges from things that have damaged someone, and there is a kind of literature where the authors don’t chose their subject, but deal with one that was thrust upon them,” she said. “I’m not the only writer like that.”
Mueller made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories, “Niederungen”, which was censored in Romania. In it, and in her book “Drueckender Tango” (Oppressive Tango) published two years later, she wrote about corruption and repression in the German-speaking village of Nitzkydorf where she was born.
“From now, I can say our village does exist on the map,” Nitzkydorf Mayor Ioan Mascovescu told Romania’s Realitatea TV on hearing that Mueller had become a Nobel laureate.
Mueller said she had been certain she would never win the prize. “I am not the winner, it’s my books, and they are finished works and not me, not me personally,” the 56-year-old said. “I still can’t believe it, it still hasn’t hit home. I didn’t expect it, I was certain that it wouldn’t happen.”
Mueller, whose father served in the Waffen SS in World War Two, studied German and Romanian literature at university in Timisoara where she associated with Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of authors who opposed Ceausescu and sought freedom of speech.
She paid tribute to her adopted country of Germany. “This country saved me. When I arrived in 1987, I could finally breathe,” said Mueller. “And when the dictatorship collapsed I felt I was no longer threatened.”
Her latest novel “Atemschaukel” (Everything I Possess I Carry With Me), about a 17-year-old youth who is deported to a Ukrainian labor camp, was described by one German reviewer as “phenomenal, moving and humbling”.
Prize-winners over the last decade have been dominated by Europeans and some have criticized the Academy as being too narrow-minded in its world outlook. Mueller, also known as a poet and essayist, is the 12th woman to win the Nobel prize for literature since it was set up in 1901.
Fellow laureate, Imre Kertesz of Hungary who is a friend of Mueller, told MTI news agency, “I am enthralled”, adding, “Herta Mueller has endured many hardships, she arrived tormented in Berlin from Romania in 1987”.
Criticism of comments last year by then Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl, who said that Americans did not participate in literature’s “big dialogue”, had led to speculation the committee might choose an American this year.
Bookmakers had Israeli novelist Amos Oz as favorite to win this year’s prize, with Americans Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth as leading contenders. (Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom, Sarah Marsh in Berlin and from Budapest and Bucharest; Editing by David Stamp/Louise Ireland)