Herta Mueller, a little-known Romanian-born author who was persecuted for her critical depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday in an award seen as a nod to the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse.
The decision was expected to keep alive the controversy surrounding the academy's pattern of awarding the prize to European writers.
Mueller, a member of Romania's ethnic German minority, was honored for work that "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," the Swedish Academy said.
"I am very surprised and still cannot believe it," Mueller said in a statement released by her publisher in Germany, where she is widely renowned. "I can't say anything more at the moment."
Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, told The Associated Press this week that the secretive Swedish Academy had been too "eurocentric" in picking winners. His predecessor, Horace Engdahl, stirred up heated emotions across the Atlantic when he told the AP in 2008 that "Europe still is the center of the literary world" and the quality of U.S. writing was dragged down because authors were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture." After Mueller was announced, Englund told AP that "If you are European (it is) easier to relate to European literature. It's the result of psychological bias that we really try to be aware of. It's not the result of any program."
Censorship at home Mueller, 56, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled "Niederungen," or "Nadirs," depicting the harshness of life in a small, German-speaking village in Romania. It was promptly censored by the communist government. In 1984 an uncensored version was smuggled to Germany, where it was published and devoured by readers. That work was followed by "Oppressive Tango" in Romania but she was eventually prohibited from publishing inside her country for her criticism of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's rule and its feared secret police, the Securitate.
"The Romanian national press was very critical of these works while, outside of Romania, the German press received them very positively," the Academy said. Emilia Marta, a 55-year-old teacher who moved into the house in Romania's Transylvania Banat region where Mueller was born, said the author has yet to return. The mayor of the 1,600-person village of Nichtidorf said Mueller would be greeted with honors. "If she will accept this, of course," Ioan Mascovescu said. Mueller, whose father served in the Waffen SS during World War II and whose mother spent five years in a Soviet work camp, is the third European in a row to win the prize and the 10th German, joining Guenter Grass in 1999 and Heinrich Boell in 1972.
Timing is everythingThough Englund said the award was not timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism, that's how it was perceived by many observers. "By giving the award to Herta Mueller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, (the committee) has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten," said Michael Krueger, head of Mueller's publisher Hanser Verlag. German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised Mueller's work, calling it "outstanding literature" drawn from the experience of life under a dictatorship. "Today, 20 years after the fall of the wall, it is a wonderful message that such high-quality literature about this life experience is being honored with the literature Nobel Prize," she told reporters. "We are naturally delighted that Herta Mueller has found a home in Germany." Mueller emigrated to Germany with her husband in 1987, two years before Ceausescu was toppled amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe. "This prize is the international recognition of the oppression of what happened in Romania and Eastern Europe," said Romanian actor Ion Caramitru, an anti-communist who rode atop a tank to the television station in Bucharest during the 1989 revolt and now heads the country's national theater. Most of Mueller's work is in German, but some works have been translated into English, French and Spanish, including "The Passport," "The Land of Green Plums," "Traveling on One Leg" and "The Appointment." Mueller's latest novel, "Atemschaukel," or "Swinging Breath" is up for this year's German Book Prize, which will be announced Monday. Mueller is the 12th woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Recent female winners include Austria's Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 and British writer Doris Lessing in 2007. It's the first time four women have won Nobel Prizes in the same year. U.S.-based researchers Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider were among the medicine winners and the chemistry prize included Israel's Ada Yonath. The prize includes a 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prize and will be handed out Dec. 10 in the Swedish capital.