donal mclaughlin

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Müller_Herta_hf_APHerta Müller was born in 1953 in Nitzkydorf in Romania. She has lived in Berlin since 1987. Her novel Atemschaukel – originally conceived as a joint project with the poet Oskar Pastior (who died in 2006) – reflects the experience of the German-speaking community in Romania at the end of World War II: men and women aged between 17 and 45 were deported and forced to work in Russian camps. The persecution of this community under Communism is a recurring theme in her work. In 2001, Herta began to interview those deported from her village in 1945. Together with Oskar Pastior she visited the camp to which he had been sent as a young man. In September 2009, Atemschaukel was shortlisted for the German Book Prize. In early October, it was announced that Herta had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.



on packing

Everything I have I carry with me.

Or: everything that’s mine I carry on me.

I carried everything I had. It wasn’t actually mine. It was either intended for a different purpose or somebody else’s. The pigskin suitcase was a gramophone box. The dust coat was from my father. The town coat with the velvet neckband from my grandfather. The breeches from my Uncle Edwin. The leather puttees from our neighbour, Herr Carp. The green gloves from my Auntie Fini. Only the claret silk scarf and the toilet bag were mine, gifts from recent Christmases.

The war was still on in January 1945. Shocked that, in the depths of winter, I was to be taken who-knows-where by the Russians, everyone wanted to give me something that would be useful, maybe, even if it didn’t help. Because nothing on earth could help. It was irrevocable: I was on the Russians’ list, so everyone gave me something – and drew their own conclusions as they did. I took the things and, at the age of seventeen, drew my own conclusion: the timing was right for going away. I could have done without the list being the reason, but if things didn’t turn out too badly, it would even be good for me. I wanted away from this thimble of a town, where all the stones had eyes. I wasn’t so much afraid as secretly impatient. And I had a bad conscience because the list that caused my relatives such anguish was, for me, tolerable. They feared that in another country something might happen to me. I wanted to go to a place that did not know me.

Something had already happened to me. Something forbidden. It was strange, dirty, shameless, and beautiful. It happened in the park with all the alders, away at the back, beyond the short-grass hills. On the way home, I went to the centre of the park, into the round pavilion where, on public holidays, the orchestras would play. I remained seated for a while. The light pierced the finely-carved wood. I could see the fear of the empty circles, squares, and quadrilaterals – white tendrils with claws linking them. It was the pattern of my aberration, and the pattern of the horror in the face of my mother. In this pavilion I swore to myself: I’m never coming back to this park.

The more I tried to stop myself, the quicker I went back – after two days. To my rendezvous, as it was called in the park.

I went to my second rendezvous with the same first man. He was called THE SWAN. The second man was new, he was called THE FIR. The third was called THE EAR. After that came THE THREAD. Then THE ORIOLE and THE CAP. Later, THE HARE, THE CAT, THE SEAGULL. Then THE PEARL. Only we knew which name was whose. We played at wild animals, I let myself be passed along. And it was summer in the park, and the birches had a white skin, and the green wall of impenetrable foliage was growing among the jasmine and elder bushes.

Love has its seasons. Autumn put an end to the park. The wood became naked. The rendezvous moved with us to the Neptune. Next to the pool’s iron gate was its oval sign with the swan. Each week, I met the one who was twice my age. He was Romanian. He was married. I am not saying what his name was, and not what my name was. We arrived separately: the woman at the cash desk, behind the leaded window of her booth, the shiny stone floor, the round central column, the wall tiles with the water-lily pattern, the carved wooden stairs – none of these must realise we’d arranged to meet. We went into the pool and swam with all the others. Only at the saunas did we finally meet.

Back then, shortly before the camp – and as would also be the case from my return until, in 1968, I left the country – any rendezvous would have meant a prison sentence. Five years, at least, if I’d been caught. Many were. After a brutal interrogation, they were taken straight from the park or the municipal baths to the jail. From there, to the prison camp next to the canal. I know now: no-one came back from the canal. Anyone who did was a walking corpse. Had aged, was ruined, was no longer fit for any kind of love.

As for in the camp – I’d have been dead, if caught in the camp.

After the five years in the camp, I strolled daily through the commotion of the streets, rehearsing in my head the best things to say, if arrested. CAUGHT RED-HANDED: against this guilty verdict I prepared a thousand excuses and alibis. I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself in words. I just pack myself differently each time I speak.

In the last summer of the rendezvous, to extend my walk home from the park with all the alders, I happened to enter the Church of the Holy Trinity on the main ring road. This coincidence was fate. I saw the times that were coming. On a pillar, next to the side altar, stood the saint in the grey cloak, his collar was the sheep that he carried round his neck. This sheep round his neck is silence itself. There are things you don’t speak about. But I know what I am speaking about when I say that silence round your neck is not the same as silence in your mouth. Before, during, and after my time in the camp – for twenty-five years I lived in fear, of the state and of my family. Of a double fall, that the state might lock me up as a criminal, and the family disown me in disgrace. In the crowded streets, the display cases, the windows in trams and houses, the fountains and puddles, for me, became mirrors. I looked at myself, disbelievingly, feared I might be transparent, after all.

My father was an art teacher. And I, with the Neptune in my head, winced as if I’d been kicked if he used the word WATERCOLOUR. The word knew how far I’d gone already. My mother said, at the table: Don’t stab the potato with your fork, it will fall apart, use your spoon, you use your fork for the flesh. My temples were pounding. How come she’s using the word flesh when it’s potatoes and forks we’re talking about? What kind of flesh does she mean? My rendezvous had reversed the meanings of flesh for me. I was my own thief, the words came up unexpectedly and caught me.

My mother and especially my father, like all Germans in the town, believed in the beauty of blond plaits and white knee-length socks. In the black rectangle that was Hitler’s moustache, and in us Transylvanian Saxons being part of the Aryan race. My secret, viewed purely physically, was the worst abomination. The Romanian involved meant I’d had relations with a non-Aryan, too.

I wanted away from this family, even if it meant going to a camp. I just felt sorry for my mother who couldn’t see how little she knew me. Who, when I was away, would think of me more often than I of her.

In the church, beside the saint with the sheep of silence round his neck, I had seen the white alcove with the inscription: HEAVENS SETS TIME IN MOTION. When I packed my case, I knew: the white alcove had worked. This was now time in motion. I was also happy I didn’t have to go off into the war, into the snow at the front. With foolish courage, I obediently set about packing. There was nothing I refused to include. Leather puttees with laces, breeches, the coat with the velvet neckband – none of these things suited me. Time in motion was what it was all about, not clothes. Whether with these clothes or others, you become an adult anyway. The world isn’t a fancy-dress ball, it’s true, I thought, but no-one who, in the depths of winter, has to go to the Russians can possibly look ridiculous.

Two policemen – a Romanian and a Russian – took the list from house to house. That was the patrol. I don’t know any more whether, in our house, they uttered the word CAMP. And if they didn’t, which other word – apart from RUSSIA – they did utter. If they did, the word camp didn’t frighten me. Despite the war, and the silence of my rendezvous round my neck, I was still – at seventeen – enjoying a bright foolish childhood. Words like watercolour and flesh got to me. My brain was deaf to the word CAMP.

That time at the table with the potatoes and the fork, when my mother caught me with the word flesh, I remembered playing as a child down in the courtyard, and my mother shouting from the veranda window: if you don’t come up to eat right now, if I have to call you again, you can stay where you are. Because I stayed down another while, when I did come up, she said:

You can pack your satchel now and go out into the world and do what you like. As she said this, she dragged me into the room, took the small rucksack and stuffed my woolly cap and jacket into it. I asked: Where am I supposed to go, though? I’m your child, after all.

Many people think packing is a matter of practice, you learn it automatically, like singing or praying. We had no practice, and no suitcase, either. When my father had to go to the front, to join the Romanian army, there was nothing to pack. As a soldier you’re given everything, it’s part of the uniform. Apart from for travelling away, and against the cold, we didn’t know what we were packing for. You don’t have the right things, so you improvise. The wrong things become what’s needed. What’s needed is then the only thing that’s right, but only because you have it.

My mother brought the gramophone from the living-room and put it on the kitchen table. Using the screwdriver, I made a suitcase from the gramophone box. The rotary mechanism and the turntable I removed first. Then I filled the hole where the crank handle had been with a cork. The velvet lining remained where it was, red as a fox. Nor did I remove the triangular plaque with the dog beside the horn and HIS MASTER’S VOICE. At the bottom of the case I placed four books: Faust, a cloth-bound edition, Zarathustra, the slim volume by Weinheber, and the eight-centuries-of-poetry anthology. No novels, because novels you read just once, then never again. My toilet bag went on top of the books. In it were: 1 flacon of toilet water, 1 flacon of TARR aftershave, 1 shaving soap, 1 hand razor, 1 shaving brush, 1 styptic pencil, 1 piece of hand-soap, 1 pair of nail-scissors. Beside the toilet bag I placed: 1 pair of woollen socks (brown, already darned), 1 pair of knee-length socks, 1 red-and-white checked flannel shirt, 2 pairs of ribbed underpants. At the very top, to prevent it being squashed, came my new silk scarf. It was self-coloured – claret – but checked, shiny here, dull there. With that, the case was full.

And then my bundle: 1 bedspread from the divan (woollen, a bright-blue and beige check, gigantic – but it didn’t keep you warm). And rolled into it: 1 dust coat (a pepper-and-salt check, already very worn) and 1 pair of leather puttees (ancient, from the first World War, melon-yellow, and with straps).

Then my haversack with: 1 tin of ham, Scandia was the make, 4 slices of buttered bread, a few left-over cookies from Christmas, 1 canteen of water with a beaker.

My grandmother then put the gramophone suitcase, the bundle, and the haversack near the door. The two policemen had said they would come at midnight, that was when they’d fetch me. My luggage was ready by the door.

Next, I put on: 1 pair of long underpants, 1 flannel shirt (a beige-and-green, check), 1 waistcoat with knitted sleeves, 1 pair of woollen socks, and 1 pair of bocanci. The green gloves from Auntie Fini lay on the table, at the ready. I tied the laces on the bocanci and suddenly remembered that years ago, on holiday up on the Wench, my mother had worn a sailor suit she’d made. In the middle of a walk in the countryside, she’d let herself fall in the long grass and pretended to be dead. I was eight at the time. The fright of the sky falling down into the grass. I closed my eyes in order not to see it swallowing me. My mother jumped up, shook me, and said: Do you like me? As you see, I’m still alive.

The laces on the bocanci were tied now. I sat down at the table and waited for midnight. And midnight came, but the patrol was late. Three hours were to pass – which was almost intolerable. Then they were there. My mother held the coat with the velvet neckband up for me. I slipped my arms in. She was crying. I put on the green gloves. In the wooden passageway – right where the gas-meter is – my grandmother said: I KNOW YOU’LL RETURN.

I didn’t mean to remember this sentence. I took it with me into the camp, without thinking. I had no idea it was accompanying me. But a sentence like that is independent. It worked in me, more than all the books I took with me. I KNOW YOU’LL RETURN became my heart-shaped shovel’s accomplice, and the angel of hunger’s adversary. Because I did return, I have the right to say: a sentence like that keeps you alive.

It was 3am in the night of 14-15 January 1945 when the patrol came to fetch me. It was getting colder, -15º C. We drove in a lorry with a tarpaulin hood through the empty town to the exhibition hall. It was the Saxons’ festival hall. And now the collective camp. Almost 300 people were squeezed into the hall. On the floor were mattresses and straw palliasses. Cars arrived all through the night, from the surrounding villages too, unloading people who’d been rounded up. By morning, there were almost 500. Counting was a waste of time that night, no overview was possible. In the exhibition hall, the lights burned all night. People were running round, looking for people they knew. They told each other that joiners were being commandeered at the railway station, they were nailing plank beds, made of new wood, into livestock wagons. That other workmen were installing iron stoves in trains. And that others were sawing toilet holes out in the floor. Eyes were opened wide as people spoke, quietly and a lot; and closed as they cried, quietly and a lot. The air smelled of old wool, of the sweat of fear, of a fatty roast, vanilla biscuits and schnapps. A woman removed her scarf. She lived in a village, for sure: her hair was in a double bun at the back of her head, held in place at the centre by a semicircular comb. The teeth of the horn comb disappeared in her hair. Of its curved edge, two corners showed only, like tiny pointed ears. With these ears and the fat bun of hair, the back of the woman’s head resembled a sitting cat. I sat like a spectator among upright legs and piles of luggage. For a few minutes, sleep numbed me and I dreamt:

My mother and I are in the cemetery, standing at a new grave. In the middle of it, a furry-leaved plant, half the height of me, is growing. On the stalk is a capsule with a leather handle, a small suitcase. The capsule is open, the breadth of a finger, is lined in fox-red velvet. We don’t know who has died. My mother says: Take the chalk from your coat pocket. I don’t have any, I say. When I reach into the pocket, there is a piece of tailor’s chalk. My mother says: We have to write a short name on the case. Let’s write RUTH, no-one we know is called that. I write RUHT, as in here lies.

It was clear to me in my dream that I had died, but I didn’t want to tell my mother that yet. I started when an elderly man with an umbrella sat down on the palliasse beside me, came close to my ear and said: My brother-in-law wants to come too, but the hall is guarded on all sides. They’re not letting him. We’ve not left town yet, and he can’t come here and I can’t go home. On each silver button on his jacket a bird was flying, a wild duck or, more likely, an albatross. I say that because the cross on the decoration on his chest, when I leaned further forward, became an anchor. The umbrella stood like a walking stick between me and him. I asked: Are you taking that with you? Sure it snows there even more than here, he said.

We were not told when, and how, we would have to go to the station from the hall. Would be allowed to go, as I saw it, because I wanted to leave – at long last – and even if it was in the livestock wagon, with a gramophone box and a velvet neckband, and to go to the Russians. I no longer know how we got to the station. The livestock wagons were high. I have forgotten the boarding procedure, too, as we spent such long days and nights travelling in that wagon, it was as if we’d always been in it. I no longer know, either, how long we travelled. I thought travelling for a long time meant getting far away. As long as we’re travelling, nothing can happen to us. All is well, as long as we’re travelling.

Men and women, young and old, with their luggage at the head of their plank. Speaking and not speaking, eating and sleeping. Bottles of schnapps were passed round. Here and there, once the travelling was something we were already used to, attempts at cuddling started. You looked with one eye, and, with the other, looked away.

From: Herta Müller, Atemschaukel, Carl Hanser Verlag 2009

© English translation of the above chapter, Donal McLaughlin 2009


Herta & Donal at the LCB in Berlin, August 2009 (Photo: Janejira Sereeyotin, Thailand)

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