Visiting author reflects upon tyranny

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Visiting author reflects upon tyranny

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Herta Muller answers questions from the audience at a reading at the Kyobo Building near Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. Provided by the Daesan Foundation


Stern-looking with pursed lips, black-rimmed glasses and thick eyeliner - these are the visual trademarks of Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

Muller kept her solemn composure while reading excerpts from her debut novel “Nadirs” and from last year’s “Everything I Possess I Carry With Me,” at an event at the Kyobo Building in Gwanghwamun Thursday. But she was relaxed enough to smile as she answered questions from longtime fans, who filled the large convention hall to capacity.

Muller, who is notorious for avoiding contact with the media, has grown in popularity since her two novels were translated into Korean last year.

Many fans asked her about her writing style, which is bold but full of hidden meanings. And her answer was simple: She formed her style as she wrote.

She constantly used the German word for “must” when explaining her choice of words and story, as if she were compelled to write in a certain way, said Choi Yun-young, the German language and literature professor at Seoul National University who served as Muller’s translator.

“When writing a long story or novel, the language and style just appear,” Muller said. “They are not things I decide upon before I actually began writing the piece.”

Her style is related to her early experiences living under a dictatorship.

“I don’t have any definitive [writing] advice for you,” Muller said. “I’ve gone through a dictatorship, which tells you what to do.”

The Romanian-born German writer watched the rise of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and eventually left for West Germany in 1987.

Muller spoke out against censorship, refusing to allow the government to edit her novels, which were later banned in her home country. She herself lived with constant government surveillance.

The novelist spoke about her encounter with tyranny at a press conference during the 19th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association at Chung-Ang University on Monday.

Not surprisingly, her target was North Korea, a Communist dictatorship like Ceausescu’s Romania that also tried to twist culture to serve the needs of government.

“I think North Korea is so horrible, it has become an aberration of human history,” Muller said.

In Romania, Muller worked as a translator at a factory. Work which she recalled gave her a trove of images she later used in complex symbols and metaphors in her novels.

In “Everything I Possess I Carry With Me,” she describes a “Schaufelhub” or heart-shaped shovel that can be traded for one gram of bread.

But this isn’t a common tool.

Professor Choi, who also served as emcee for the event, added that Muller’s language may sound surreal, but always comes back around to represent reality.

It was the writer’s first trip, not only to Korea, but to Asia as well. She arrived Sunday for the gathering at Chung-Ang University, where she has been giving guest lectures for the past week.

She used this chance to get close to the world’s last remaining Stalinist state.

Muller, accompanied by Choi, visited Imjingak in Paju, Gyeonggi, Wednesday, from which North Korean territory is visible. Choi said at the reading that Muller was shocked by the fact that the world’s most radical Communist state was located so close to the heart of a democratic country.

Muller said that the separation of the two Koreas reminded her of the Berlin Wall.

It was very quiet when Muller began reading and her voice echoed off the walls. Many in attendance seemed to understand German, bringing along their original editions of her work.

When she paused, the hall filled with the crisp sound of turning pages.

When a Korean mother asked Muller if she had any advice for her two children, who were very interested in her novels and literature in general, she answered slyly that she should never push her children to read anything, but just leave them to explore on their own and work toward their own dreams.

On Wednesday, Muller received an honorary doctorate degree from Seoul Women’s University.


By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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