The True Nature of Truth and Power in Romania: A conversation with Herta Müller

By Emily Erdmann

On Tuesday, April 23rd, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies hosted its annual lecture, one that capped the year-long focus on the nature of truth and power. The Center invited Herta Müller, the 2009 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature who is among the German-speaking minority in her home country of Romania.

Dr. Stephen Norris introduced the Q&A-style dialogue by summarizing the events building up to this one: speakers prior to Müller were mostly Russian and they spoke primarily on Putin’s manipulation of truth and the nature of “truth” specifically in Russia. This time, however, Müller was able to offer a different perspective on the lasting impact of lies in the region. Her experiences argue that more than just Russia suffers from the effects of a state built on fear and corruption. Although the presented conversation conveyed this theme rather directly, her publications follow a narrative format that relays these realities through depictions of Romania’s German-speaking minority under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Having lived through this time period herself, Müller encountered the power of the system’s lies through her work. As she attempted to literarily transcribe and document what she recognized as truth around her, state authorities occupied her time with endless interrogations over fabricated evidence for invented crimes. These “investigations” did not overtly make her work illegal. On the contrary, they didn’t address her work at all, but rather they prevented her from working altogether by tying her up in arguments over alleged prostitution and other falsehoods. This fear tactic even went so far as to produce as many false witnesses as necessary to make an adequate threat against the accused.

In procuring information, the state stopped at nothing to spread its roots into the everyday life of the subject of these investigations. In Müller’s case, it solicited the help of an old and dear friend, a terminal cancer patient. The two had met years prior while working in a factory together. This friend, despite her failing condition, came to visit Müller, and in their reunion, it became evident that she was in fact sent to spy on her. In the guise of good friendship the voice of a corrupt system sending death threats could therefore be detected. Müller described this as a disgusting affair, the consequences of which were devastating on a personal level.

For Müller, literature is not only a medium for transposing truth, but also a means of expression, an outlet for grieving what she described as the pains of a fear-driven system where the fearmongers prey and the fear abiders feast on fear as their daily intake. These fear constructors falsified more than just history, they manipulated the very language and transformed it into a rhetoric of deceit. Müller’s prose thus reclaims her native tongue and returns it to a language of truth as it proclaims the crude realities of the Post-communist system in Romania.

It is interesting to note that the Q&A was actually facilitated through two translators. At the end of the session, Müller apologized for her insufficient English, but this language barrier posed little inconvenience and in fact served even more so to highlight the victory of her efforts to restore her language in the context of her country as one that speaks truth and openness in place of lies and deception. With each publication and each appearance, Müller is combatting firsthand the lingering infection of lies with respect to past and present-day Romania.

Emily Erdmann is a senior graduating with degrees in French and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  This past academic year she has served as a Havighurst Center fellow responsible for covering the ongoing series about “truth and power.” She will spend 2019-20 in Russia on a Fulbright.

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