Sunday, July 8, 2012

Herta Muller, Orientalism, and Her Dance Scenes

Herta Muller photo by Ulla Montan
from Nobel Prize photo gallery.
Novelist Herta Muller doesn't write about belly dance or the Middle East.  However, as a German speaker born in Romania, she does write about regime and exile and the humanizing force of fear in a manner I admire deeply.  She avoids labels.  I've read her novel, The Appointment, and Nadirs, a story collection and saw her twice this spring at Pen World Voices festival.  I'm currently reading her newest novel, The Hunger Angel.  Because she avoids names and dates and labels, her characters rise organically bravely within their misery and make their individual stories universal.  In The Hunger Angel, a young German-Romanian man is sent to a Russian work camp after World War II.  The story starts with poverty and countryside and ventures into worse poverty and more remote countryside and forced labor that intends to destroy. Hunger steals and taunts and makes mockery of those slave workers, and yet hunger also becomes a beautiful force, reminding them of their humanity.

Herta Muller signs a book for me at the 92nd Street Y
at the Pen World Voices Festival 2012.
More related to Orientalish, Muller overtly refers to music in all of the works I've read.  Folk songs become self-sustaining threads of "home" or a remembered childhood and a reason to continue despite hardship.  Sometimes the songs seem to make no logical sense, but their haunting lyricism exemplifies the characters' necessary ability to find moments of beauty inside desperation.  Muller gains emotion without sentimentality.  There is a dance scene in The Hunger Angel and two dance scenes in The Appointment. Dis-empowerment, exploitation, the body pushed into submission and spectacle for "the other," the more I consider her work, the more I feel its connection to part of the troubling nature of "orientalism."  And, as with belly dance and general orientalism (if there is such thing), Muller, writing from a stable place, derives beauty from depicting and exploring the conditions of those who are less able to write their own stories.  (I think of the criticism Tahar Ben Jelloun has received.)

Regardless, Muller's work haunts me.

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