Saturday, September 03, 2011

Herta Müller's Nadirs: Poetry (In Translation)

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When Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009, I admit that I rolled my eyes in exasperation and thought, another obscure European fiction writer!?, when there are so many others who deserve this global honor, and could use the money on top of it?  (I was, however, glad that a woman was being honored.) I am quite capable of changing my mind on the "obscure European fiction writer" part as on many other things, though, and although I cannot claim to have read any of Müller's oeuvre in the original German (she was born in 1953 into the German-speaking minority in Nitzkydorf, Banat, Romania, during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu, and later moved to Germany, a journey echoed in several of her works, including The Passport and Traveling on One Leg), I have now dipped into several of her books in English translation, including the two named above as well as The Land of Green Plums, and her first (published 1982 in Romania, 1984 in Germany), which was the first of hers I came across, in the university library (I later found it for almost nothing at a now-defunct Borders in Chicago), Niederungen, translated and with an afterword by Sieglinde Lug, and published as Nadirs published by the University of Nebraska Press (1999).

EXCURSUS: German speakers and readers will immediately note that Nadirs is a good but imperfect translation of the original title, which has its cognate in several very old English roots and words, including "-neath" (as in "beneath") and "nether," as in nether regions or the Netherlands (i.e., the low countries, which in French is les rendered exactly as Pays-Bas.).  Niederungen means, then, the "low things"--"ung" approximating English's gerundive "ing," or similar words with Latinate endings such as "-ion" or the Norman "-ment," with the sense of "thing" related to the root of that word and an abstracting element; think of "understanding, agreement" (G: Verständigung [understanding-thing]) or "illumination" (G: Beleuchtung [be-light-ing, light-thing], Erläuterung, Illuminierung, etc.) or "opinion" (G: Meinung [minding, mind-thing], to give three examples. "Low" or "beneath" refers to the earthy content and raw language of the stories, the lowly status of the people depicted in them, and, I think, to the fact that a female child, a person of particularly low status in the society rendered so unforgettably by Müller, tells these stories.  (I find such close but untranslatable words in every language endlessly fascinating.) If Nebraska had used as its title Netherings or Nether Things or Lowly Things or Lowlinesses, would it have had as much punch as Nadirs, which though an Arabic-derived word, nevertheless captures the sounds, rhythm, and, in English, some of the meaning, of the German?

I am still not decided on whether Müller deserved the Nobel Prize (probably yes), but that is neither here nor there because who am I but a reader? I must say, though, that her sentences, as rendered in English, and her stories and novels in toto, beguile me. They unfold in the form of a particular visionary or deeply-peering child's or adult's poetry strung together as prose texts, with plots and atmospherics reminiscent of a syntactically distilled Franz Kafka, but with the horror notch were turned up several volumes in terms of the plots.  What poetry, what strangeness!  The title story of the collection is worth the entire volume, but each piece, no matter how brief, offer something to reread more than once, though I also have found that the bleakness of this world she presents requires that I break from it periodically.  I should add that too much of this with the wrong writer comes off really sounding precious and pretentious, like an overworked, well, writing project. But Müller's novels do have plots, bizarre though they may be, and the authenticity of her alienation, as Lug aptly describes it, matches the almost childlike prose evoking the brutalities her characters live through.

A year ago, I told my graduate class about Nadirs in an effort to explicate a point about describing familial memories and personal traumas, which the book abounds in, and shortly thereafter wondered whether it was a good idea to recommend this book instead of something more, oh, conventional. But I have come to realize that anyone writing can learn from a writer like Müller, and even if her work is poles away from the mainstream of American literature, particularly American fiction, it offers ample if idiosyncratic pleasures and lessons.

Here are a few passages, translated by Lug. You will have to turn to the German to see their beauty and strangeness in the original, but I think what I'm suggesting above will, I hope, become clear.

"I wanted to get up from my chair, but my dress was frozen to the wood. My dress was transparent and black. It crackled whenever I moved. I rose and touched Father's face. It was colder than the objects in the room. It was summer outside. Flies were dropping their maggots in flight. The village stretched out along the wide sandy road. The road was hot and brown, and burned out your eyes with its glare." - from "The Funeral Sermon," p. 2

"The long alley with its wild vine, the ink-colored grapes cooking in the sun under their delicate skin. I bake sand pies, I grind bricks into red paprika, I scrape the skin off my wrists. It burns in my bones." - from "Nadirs," p. 11

"The gardens are intensely green. The fences are floating after moist shadows. The window panes glide bare and bright from one house to the other. The church tower is turning, the heroes' crucifix is turning. The names of the heroes are long and blurred. Käthe is reading the names from the bottom to the top. The third from the bottom is my grandfather, she says. She makes the sign of the cross in front of the church. The pond shines in front of the mill. The duckweeds are green eyes. - from "Rotten Pears," p. 76

"Mother lays the black silk stockings on the table. The silk stockings have thick sheer calves. They are black glass. The silk stockings have opaque heels and pointed opaque toes. They are black stone." - from "Oppressive Tango," p. 84

"My blouse is soft, its buttons are small, its buttonholes big. My skirt is like dusk and rises like fog. Tony's hands burn on my belly. My knees float apart and swim as far as my thighs are long. My belly twitches, my temples press down on my eyes. The bridge is hollow and groans, and its echo falls into my mouth. Tony pants and the grass sighs. My skirt rises up under my elbows. Tony's back is sweating on my hands. Up there in the moon, behind my hair, forgotten dogs bark and the night guard is leaning on the long wall of the chalky veins of the old mill and he sleeps. The bridge whirls around my hands, and my tongue turns in Tony's mouth.  With faltering breath Tony digs a hole into my belly. My knees are floating to the edge of the bridge. The bridge falls into my eyes. Hot slime flows into my belly and spreads over me, and seals up my breath and buries my face." - from "The Window," p. 91

"Yesterday during the night shift, a boy got his hands cut off by the five-ton press. The foreman fired a mechanic and gave him a bottle of schnapps and then screwed in the missing light bulbs. In the changing-room they caught the mechanic pouring schnapps into the boy. They pounced on the mechanic, he is in the hospital now." - from "The Intervillage Bus," p. 111

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