Herta Müller, Who Even People Who Had Heard of J.M.G. Le Clézio Have Never Heard of, Is This Year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature

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10/08/2009 11:45 AM |

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Following enough late movement in the Ladbrokes odds to lead to speculation of a leak at the Swedish Academy, the Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for literature today, leading to a great many grunts of “who?” among English-language readers, because we assume that if somebody’s not translated into English it’s because they are “obscure”, and not because “nothing is ever translated into English except Roberto Bolaño.”

Still, even in the European literary community, this appears to be the most surprising Nobel since, well, at least Elfride Jelinek. (Maybe even Wislawa Szymborska!) In her own own official statement Ms. Müller’s confesses, “I am very surprised and still cannot believe it… I can’t say anything more at the moment.” (Not exactly Doris Lessing’s “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less,” is it?)

So, who is Herta Müller?

She’s 56 years old, born in Romania, from whence she finally fled in 1987, a few years before the fall of Communism, after censorship and surveillance; her first works were smuggled out of the country for publication. Five of her works-novels addressing life under totalitarianism and in exile-are available in English from small and university presses; the invaluable Chad Post, at Open Letter Books’ Three Percent sure, has quickly assembled a collection of reviews that serves as an introduction and may or may not send you to Amazon for used copies.

Will this award cause some brief flickering American interest in a previously neglected major European writer? Eh, probably not, though it wouldn’t surprise me if Open Letter starts publishing her next year.