Do we write in order to heal? Is literature a form of therapy? – asked Ion Vianu, writer and psychiatrist, at the third meeting of the FILIT evenings, the special guest of which was the Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller. “The Hungarian novelist György Dragomán told me that when he was 13 or 14 he was depressed and he decided to kill himself. He told his father it would be better if he died, and then his father gave him a book by Herta Müller and encouraged him to read it. «If afterwards you still want to kill yourself, then go ahead and do it». And Gyorgy Dragoman read it and changed his mind,” was the answer given by Ernest Wichner, a German writer and translator, the moderator of the evening.
Many things are therapy, a flower, a garden, anything that is beautiful can be therapy, added Herta Müller. “But in art, if something is beautiful, it is also painful. There isn’t just one side to it, it’s not just something that gives you joy. This pain is necessary, poetry does not end with its last word. It hurts, but it also helps me. It’s the same with writing. I’ve always believed that the sum of the two is zero: it hurts me as mush as it helps me. This equation must exist, otherwise I don’t like the text,” explained the German writer.
In these circumstances, writing is a risk, but not writing is also a risk, as Herta Müller also found out, because she has often wondered what would have been best: to write or not to write? “Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t write. If I hadn’t started books and gone in this direction, I would have had a different life, with different friends. I would have worked somewhere, as a seamstress or in a stockings factory. I would have worked every day, I would have been tired, I would have seen what was going on around me and I would have found another way to express myself. I would have woven all this sensibility into a pair of stockings,” the writer said, musing about her alternative destiny. “But it wouldn’t have been visible in that pair of stockings…” Therefore, she concluded, it’s better that she works with words.
Anyway, all things are both sad and funny – this has always been Herta Müller’s belief. This is what her childhood was like. Sad because of her mother, who, returning home after five years in a labour camp for deportees, was sad for the rest of her life. But her childhood was also amusing, because, when retold on the stage of the National Theatre, it made the audience laugh. “I’ve always believed that my mother was old, although she was only 28. To me, at the age of five, it seemed I myself was very old, that I had already lived through so much, done everything. I was thinking what the heck I’m going to do until I’m 28.” But this feeling, which now seems amusing, came from the fact that her mother had “a very sad interior and exterior countenance”. She would eat in a rush and she had an obsession for potatoes, a luxury food in the labour camp. “I had to learn to peel the potatoes very thinly, and if I couldn’t do it, my mother would be very angry and hit me. It got to the point where I was afraid to eat together with her,” remembered Herta Müller. Her mother, like most of those who had returned from the labour camp, was never rid of the fear of starvation. She would eat with sadness, but also with joy. “These are such mixed up things, that you don’t know what is the percentage of each of these feelings,” added the writer.
“It’s impossible to be dry when it hurts”
Herta Müller told the audience that when she left her native country, she was so broken down, that all she could think about was what she had experienced in Romania. This is why, she says, she couldn’t have written about anything else. “Especially in the first years, when I knew that the Ceaușescu regime was still in power and that dozens of people I knew and loved had not managed to escape, I couldn’t write about anything else. It was that – or not writing at all.” However, the writer added, there’s nothing wrong in finding inspiration in your own experience, especially when it’s so powerful that it does lot leave you undamaged. “Half of the world’s libraries are filled with books written by people who did not choose their topics, it was the topics that chose them.” Among these are the writers who have lived through the two World Wars, through the Gulag or the Holocaust.
Ion Vianu wished to stress he appreciates the extraordinary extent of the feelings Herta Müller conveys in her books. “She has a very acid side, very ironic, a serious and amusing side, but also a colourful one. She is a metaphor factory, my favourite writer.”
“It is impossible to be dry when you are in pain,” replied the Nobel laureate. “I want to oppose this pain through something that gives me joy. I don’t want to give in to pain. And I wouldn’t like the process if I didn’t have the possibility to see images. Through accurate observation, on the one hand you put yourself at the disposal of a reality, but you also evade it. I cannot explain this.” One way to evade was to set herself tasks, to observe things in the street – moles, for instance. “I’ve counted moles for hours, especially in summer. Or wooden walking sticks, an item that is no longer present in Germany, and is on its way to extinction in the rest of the world as well. This beautiful, cultural object is disappearing, unfortunately. Or pregnant women – I’ve always found something to count,” Herta Müller said, disclosing thus one of her “formulas”.
Also, in the times of the communist regime, jokes were such an evasion, an escape. They were, obviously, “both sad and funny”. “When you are depressed, jokes are good therapy. This activity gave me and my friends the joy to live. Is known that the best jokes have always been made in the worst of times.” And I don’t need a handkerchief, because I’m determined not to cry, as Herta Müller wrote in her latest book translated into Romanian.