Herta Mueller and Oskar Pastior

This weekend, the German literary scene was abuzz as absolutely stunning, and profoundly sad news surprised us all. Roll back the tape for a moment now: we all remember how Herta Müller, Literature Nobel winner 2009, discussed her most recent novel Atemschaukel (translated into English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me). She had written this novel to commemorate a friend, the great German poet Oskar Pastior. Müller and Pastior, both of them exiles from Communist Romania had been friends for awhile when they suddenly started to look into Pastior’s experiences in a Soviet camp shortly after WWII; their long talks resulted in copious notes, which Müller turned into a book after Pastior’s death. Atemschaukel was a remarkable literary success, and her moving interviews and statements at readings about her dear old friend (who died in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious German literary award posthumously), could not fail to move her listeners. For those who knew her work, Atemschaukel was a kind of departure. Hitherto, Müller’s work had always been shrouded in a darkness, a result of living under the watchful eyes of the Romanian secret service, the Securitate. Müller wrote at length, bleakly, and bitterly about the terrors of hiding one’s secrets from the informers, of fleeing the country. She also wrote and talked about how friendships were destroyed by the knowledge of someone having been an informer. This was something, Herta Müller confided, she was unable to forgive or bear in even a close friend.

And now we learned (click here for a longer article) that Müller recently (two weeks ago) found out that Pastior had been himself, from 1961 to 1968, an informer of Securitate under the alias Otto Stein. So far, precious little is known about his involvement. The two researchers who found Pastior’s informant’s dossier and traced at least one report on a fellow writer in that writer’s dossier have found enough, however, to make us picture a deeply troubling story. What seems clear is that Pastior was pressured into signing up.

Immediately after the camps, returning to his home town, he wrote a couple of poems, some of which he kept. These poems criticized the camps and, by extension, the Soviet Union, and were dangerous material to have. Pastior knew this well, and although he gave copies to a friend of his, he swore her to secrecy and burned all his other copies when he moved to Bucharest, Romania’s capital, to study German literature; there, among writers and lovers of literature, found himself quickly in a peculiarly dangerous position again. Studying at university, gaining a reputation as a writer, he hung around with poets and novelists who were suspected of harboring a bourgeois attitude. This led quickly to the Securitate taking an interest in him. They came after that old friend of his, found the dangerous poems, and with a few more trumped-up charges they sentenced her to seven years in a penitentiary. And then they came for him. What’s odd, one of the researchers notes, is that Pastior’s informer’s file at the Securitate contains no reports apart from a small scrawled note. What it did contain is material that could be used to pressure Pastior. No reports by Pastior, but reports on Pastior aplenty. Everyone and his mother seemed to inform on him. Fellow students, university teachers, friends, Pastior’s environment was lousy with rats. And Pastior was afraid. Not just because of the evidence they already had against him and confronted him with.

There was also the fact that Pastior, despite being married, was secretly homosexual, and feared discovery and being persecuted for his sexual predilections. After seven years of fear, of going through the motions with the Securitate and of hiding his innermost self from everyone around him, he took a trip to Germany and never came back. Upon his arrival in Germany, he talked to the officials and came completely clean about his past as IM Stein. This was the last time he talked about it. Except for small notes found in his papers after his death, he never confessed what he must have felt an excruciating shame for. Not to friends, not to his editors, nor indeed to Herta Müller. In an interview with the FAZ, she said that the discovery was “like a slap in the face”. Müller had, in a recent interview with a Romanian newspaper, poured scorn over those former informants who had never come clean about their past, yet she seems to feel differently about Pastior. Of course she’s angry, but at the same time, Müller stresses that Pastior must have lived in perennial fear, and she takes his long silence as evidence of his deep, deep shame about the compromise he accepted in the face of a faceless, powerful and brutal regime. Pastior was a sensitive poet who created a unique body of work, which will have to be read differently from now on. In her interview, Müller tells us that Pastior always said that his language was broken in the camps. She adds that we might assume now that it’s been broken a second time when he returned home.

In a queer way, this story re-affirms that Herta Müller is a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize, because in her work, she has always taken on the demons of a country that has forced not just Oskar Pastior, but millions of other citizens to live in fear of discovery, in mistrust of their neighbors. In Müller’s work, one can’t, even in exile, escape the trauma of the Securitate. The life story of Oskar Pastior seems to be taken straight from the searing pages of Müller’s novels and novellas. We always knew that Pastior’s poetry bears witness to suffering, but we never knew how much of it actually hid in in the folds and creases of Pastior’s brilliant lines. The Pastior case remains open: we don’t know what and how much he told his tormentors, we can only guess why he kept quiet and whether he ever told anyone. We don’t know yet whether his behavior caused pain to others. What we do know, however, is that is case is a profoundly tragic one, whatever the final outcome. Denounced by his own poetry, and vulnerable because of his desires, Pastior signed a pact with the devil until he fled, a pact that kept consuming him for the rest of his life.

(other sources except those linked are two smaller pieces, from the same newspaper. An editorial called “Maß der Schuld” by S.K. and an opinion piece by Hanser director Michael Krüger (“Ein zarter, trauriger Mensch”)

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5 thoughts on “Herta Mueller and Oskar Pastior

  1. Pingback: Herta Mueller In Shock « shigekuni.

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