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Herta Mueller And The Securitate

Herta Mueller -- "Criticism and more criticism, and such destructive criticism that one might wonder, what good are these texts?" a secret police informer asked.

Herta Mueller -- "Criticism and more criticism, and such destructive criticism that one might wonder, what good are these texts?" a secret police informer asked.

No one could say that the members of the Swedish Academy who awarded Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller the 2009 Nobel Prize for literature don't know a thing or two about literary criticism.

These respected experts argued that Mueller deserved the honor for "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose," and the way she "depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," namely her native Romania during the times of sinister communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

One might therefore think that Mueller's literary talent has always been appreciated in the right measure. Well, not exactly.

At the time she published her first volume of short stories in Romania in 1982, an anonymous informer, apparently an amateur literary critic, poured scorn on her volume in a note he wrote for his Securitate masters. The informer, whose code name was Voicu, was outraged at what he saw as the absence of "any positive, optimistic element" in her stories.

The criticism of a Securitate informer (click to enlarge)-- from the personal archive of William Totok
His note (right), full of proletarian hatred, was made available to the public on December 5, 2008, by the Romanian body that studies the Securitate archives, the CNSAS.

The denouncement singles out a couple of short stories as targets for his diatribes. "The text titled 'Swabian Bath,' for instance," Voicu says in his note, "was made the subject of lively discussion among readers," when first published in a local newspaper. Voicu, probably an educated informer, maybe even a fellow intellectual of the author's, adds, "the newspaper received a series of letters from its readers, protesting vehemently against this text."

An annotation along the side, in the secret police handler's own handwriting, explains -- probably to his superiors -- the root of the alleged readers' protest, "Herta Mueller wrote that all members of [ethnic German] Swabian families customarily bathe in the same water in the same bathtub one after the other." The fact that hot water was a rare commodity, even a luxury in Ceausescu's Romania apparently escapes the officer, who, as a member of the privileged Securitate elite must have had hot water on a regular basis.

The officer adds, for good measure, an observation at the bottom of the note, saying, "HERTA MUELLER belongs to a circle of young German-language writers known as having a hostile position toward our state."

But Voicu -- the informer's code name bears a trace of involuntary humor, since it's a grassroots Romanian name, while his writing and spelling betrays that he is an ethnic German, like the author herself -- is more concerned by how the writer depicts socialist morality in her works: "In the text titled 'Meine Familie' (My Family)," thunders the informer, "the Swabian family is presented as depraved, without moral conduct, and every man has children with extra-conjugal (sic!) women."

But nothing stirs Voicu's ire more than Mueller's description of what he calls "the total decadence of a German village in [the southwestern Romanian region of] Banat." The "Village Chronicle" story he refers to is full of depravity, says a vigilant Voicu, who accuses Mueller of writing about poverty, alcoholism, nepotism, and the lack of hope. In one word, writing about the truth.

"Criticism and more criticism, and such destructive criticism that one might wonder, what good are these texts?" concludes Voicu, before datelining his denouncement, "Timisoara, March 3, 1982." He had to wait for more than 27 years to find out the answer.

-- Eugen Tomiuc

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