from Immer derselbe Schnee und immer derselbe Onkel

Herta Müller

Always the same snow and always the same uncle

The day before I emigrated, I parted from my best friend. We thought we’d never see each other again, because I’d never be allowed back in the country and she’d never be allowed out. We hugged each other and couldn’t tear ourselves apart. She went out the door three times and each time she came back. It was only after the third try that she walked away from me, in even steps down the length of the street. The street was straight, so I watched her light-colored jacket grow small and then smaller and strangely more gaudy the further she moved away. I don’t know if it was the winter sun that was sparkling — it was February — or if my eyes were sparkling inside from all the crying, or if the fabric of her jacket was sparkling, but one thing I was sure of: I watched my friend leave, and as she walked down the street her back glistened like a silver spoon. And as a result I could capture the entire separation intuitively, with a single phrase. I called it SILVER SPOON. And that effortless description was the most accurate way to depict the entire process.

I don’t trust language. I know by my own example best of all that in order to be accurate, language must always take something that doesn’t belong to it. I don’t know why verbal images are so thievish, why even the most valid comparison steals characteristics that are not properly its own. Only when one perception robs the other, when one object seizes the substance of another and claims it for its own and uses it — only when what cannot happen in reality becomes plausible in a sentence, only then can the sentence stand up to reality with a reality of its own, a reality subsumed into the word and valid as such.

My mother believed that fate always visits our family in winter. It was winter — February — when she left Romania with me twenty years ago. A few days before we were to leave the country, we were allowed to ship seventy kilos per person in advance, from a customs office near the border. Everything had to be packed in a large wooden crate with strictly prescribed measurements. The village carpenter built the crate out of light-colored acacia wood.

I had forgotten all about our emigration crate. After moving to Berlin in 1987 I didn’t give it a second thought. But the time came when I was forced to think about it all day long, because it wound up playing an important role all across the world. Our emigration crate made history, it was the central focus of an event that moved the entire world, our crate had become famous and was on TV for days. Sometimes objects become independent in your mind and slip inside other objects without no reason, and they are particularly inclined to do this the more your mind knows that the first object has nothing to do with the second: So, the reason I kept seeing our emigration crate was because the pope had died. His coffin looked exactly like our emigration crate. And then I remembered all about our emigration.

It was four in the morning when my mother and I drove off in a truck loaded with our emigration crate. The customs office was five or six hours away. We sat in the bed of the trailer, sheltered by the crate. The night was glassy cold, the moon bobbed up and down, it was so cold our eyeballs could scarcely move, they stuck out of our foreheads like frozen fruit. It hurt to blink, as though our eyes were full of frozen dust. First the moon bobbed slender and slightly bent, later, when it grew colder, it began to stab, having been sharpened to a fine point. The night was transparent, not black, because the snow acted as a reflection of daylight. It was too cold to talk. When your gums are freezing you don’t want to keep opening your mouth. I didn’t want to say a word. And yet I couldn’t help talking, because my mother said out loud, perhaps only to herself, perhaps even by accident:

“It’s always the same snow.”

By that she meant January 1945, her deportation to forced labor in the Soviet Union. People as young as sixteen were on the Russians’ list. Many hid. My mother spent four days in a hole dug behind the barn in the neighbor’s garden. But then the snow came, and she could no longer be brought food in secret. Every step between house and barn and hole became visible. In all the snow throughout the village you could see the path to every hiding place. You could read the footprints in the snow. The snow denounced her. Not just my mother; many people had to leave their hiding places voluntarily — voluntarily forced by the snow. And that meant five years of labor camp. My mother never forgave the snow for what it had done.

Later my grandmother said to me: “You can’t rearrange freshly fallen snow, you can’t fix snow so it looks untouched. You can rework earth,” she said, “and sand and even grass if you try hard enough. Water takes care of itself, because it swallows everything and flows back together once it’s done swallowing. And air is always in place because you can’t see it.” According to that, everything but snow would have kept quiet. To this day my mother believes that it’s mostly the fault of the snow that she was deported. She believes that the snow fell into the village as if it knew exactly where it was, as if it felt at home there. But that it behaved like a stranger and immediately sided with the Russians. The snow is a white betrayal. That’s exactly what my mother meant when she said: It’s always the same snow.

My mother never said the word BETRAYAL, she didn’t need to. The word BETRAYAL was present because she didn’t say it. And the word BETRAYAL grew larger with the years, the more she told her story without actually saying the word BETRAYAL. It wasn’t until much later, after I’d known the stories of her deportation for years, that I realized how grotesquely enormous the word BETRAYAL had become through my mother’s consistent avoidance, and that it was so fundamental her entire story could have been encapsulated in the phrase SNOW BETRAYAL. What she had lived through was so strong that throughout all the years later, only ordinary words sufficed to talk about it, nothing abstract or grandiose.

SNOW BETRAYAL is my own phrase, just like SILVER SPOON. Words that are well suited for long and complicated stories because they go straight to the point, by not going into details they contain so much of what isn’t expressed. Expressions like that shorten what actually happened to a single point, and lengthen our ability to imagine the countless possibilities. Words like SNOW BETRAYAL allow for so many comparisons because none are made. A phrase like that jumps out of the sentence, as though it were made of some other material. I call this material the language trick. And this language trick is what always makes me so afraid, and so addicted. Afraid, because when I use a trick like that I feel that, if the trick is successful, something outside the word becomes true. I’m afraid because I have to work so hard making sure it succeeds, as if I wanted to pose an obstacle. And because apart from that I know that the line between success and failure is always swinging like a jump rope, but what jumps are the temples and not the feet. That’s how a phrase like SNOW BETRAYAL swings — it’s a completely artificial invention, fabricated by the language trick. Its very substance undergoes a change and cannot be differentiated from a natural, physically strong perception.

The first betrayal I remember was one I committed myself. It was the betrayal with the calf. At the time, though, in my mind it was about two calves, and if I hadn’t been comparing one with the other there wouldn’t have been any betrayal. One calf was carried into the room, the other had its foot broken. The first calf was brought shortly after its birth into the room and placed on the divan in front of the bed where my grandfather had been lying for years. Without saying a word, he stared at the newborn calf for half an hour, and his eyes were piercingly greedy. I was sitting on the divan at the foot of the bed and at the foot of the calf. And I stared at my grandfather. I felt so sorry for him and so disgusted at how he was looking at the calf that it nearly broke my heart. It was a thieving gaze fastened directly onto the calf, it hung like a taut glass string stretched between the bed and the calf. A gaze in which the pupils gleamed like freshly soldered metal bearings. An obscene, desperate admiration that consumed the calf with his eyes. My grandfather saw only the new calf, not me, thank God. Because I sensed how voracious his gaze was, how unashamed of anything. What hunger in his eyes, I thought. EYE HUNGER was then another phrase that kept coming back into my mind.

That was one of the calves. The other had its foot broken with an axe shortly after it was born, so that it could be slaughtered. People weren’t allowed to slaughter calves, they had to be delivered to the state, after a few weeks, after they had attained the necessary weight. Only in the case of an accident would the veterinarian approve an emergency slaughter, in which case the farmer could keep the meat for personal consumption. When my father told the vet that the calf had had an accident, and showed him where the cow had placed its heavy foot on the calf, I cried out: “You’re lying, you did it with the axe!”

I was seven years old and knew from my parents you should never tell a lie. But I also knew that the state was bad and put people in prison because they told the truth. And I knew that the vet was a stranger in our village and was against us and for the state. That time I nearly landed my father in prison, because he instinctively trusted that I could differentiate between a lie that was not allowed at home and a necessary lie that was permissible because of all the state prohibitions. When the vet left after receiving a hefty bribe, I understood what I had done. And without knowing the word I realized that what I had done was a betrayal. I felt withered on the inside, I felt sick from the roof of my mouth to my toes.

For years we had dutifully delivered every calf to the state. Now we wanted to eat veal ourselves. That’s what it was about. But it was also about several principles that got confused: Lying, Truth, and Dignity. A person was always allowed to lie to the state, if he could, because that was the only way to get justice — I knew that. My father’s lie worked, it was smooth, and it was also necessary. So what was it that made me betray him in front of the vet who was an outsider? I was thinking about the other calf in the other house, at my paternal grandparents, the calf that my same father carried out of the stall into the room, the calf he laid on the velvet divan. The calf on the divan wasn’t beautiful, because a calf doesn’t belong on a divan. It was even ugly, the way it lay there, even if it couldn’t help being a calf on a velvet divan, that it was so pampered. But the calf whose foot had been broken with the axe was beautiful. Not out of compassion because it was going to be slaughtered. If we want to eat meat then animals must be slaughtered — no, it was beautiful precisely because it couldn’t simply be slaughtered, but had to be tortured and presented. And that made an impression on me despite my own farm-hardened eyes. Every day I watched countless chickens, hares, or goats get slaughtered without any qualms. I knew how people drowned kittens, killed dogs, poisoned rats. But the broken foot set off an unknown feeling, I was seized by the calf’s natural beauty, its almost notoriously kitschy innocence, a kind of pain before the abuse. For my father it could have ended in prison. Prison — this word struck me as clearly as a knife, in the drought of my betrayal, my heart pounded up to my forehead.

Yes, that was a different betrayal than SNOW BETRAYAL.

Perhaps because our nighttime ride in the truck across the flat even plain was as bright as thin milk, I thought about the betrayal with the calf, with the two calves. Because as we sat in the shelter of the emigration crate my mother spoke only of the SNOW BETRAYAL.

Back then she rode to the labor camp in a sealed cattle car and now she was riding with me in a truck to the customs office. Back then she was guarded by military police with rifles, now the only thing watching us was the moon. Back then she was locked up and now she was emigrating. Back then she was seventeen and now over sixty.

That was bad, sixty years old and seventy kilograms of luggage, riding on a truck through the snow in February with an emigration crate and with the moon, but it was nothing compared to 1945. After years of harassment I wanted to get out of this country. Even if my nerves had reached their breaking point, even if it had to happen to escape the Ceauşescu regime and its secret police, even if it had to happen so I wouldn’t lose my mind, still it was a question of want and not must. I wanted to leave, and my mother wanted to because I wanted to. I had to tell her that while we were on the truck, even if the roof of my mouth froze when I spoke. “Stop comparing, the snow can’t help it,” I had to say to my mother, “the snow didn’t drive us out of any hiding place.”

Back then I wasn’t very far from losing my mind. My nerves were shot, they were acting up on me, my fear ran out of my skin into every object I was working with. And they immediately worked on me. If you peer just a little past the edge, if your mind wiggles just a few millimetres between abstruse and normal, if you see yourself doing that, then you’ve reached the outermost limit of normality. At that point you can’t allow much more to be added. You want to watch out for yourself, you try to separate thinking and feeling. You want to pack everything in your head the way you’re used to, of course, but without placing it inside your heart. You move around inside yourself as though on stilts and are twice removed: on the one hand you seem enlarged, but a total stranger, and on the other you seem so familiar, but unrecognisably small and blurred. You feel that you recognise less and less, you sense how scattered you have become. This condition is dangerous, no matter how much you watch out, you don’t know when you will collapse. You only know that you will if this horrible life doesn’t change.

As I told my mother, not only did I not have a hiding place in the snow, I didn’t even have one inside my head: it was clear to me that I had to leave. I was at the end of my rope, for several months laughing and crying had gotten all mixed up. I still knew when you weren’t supposed to cry and when you weren’t supposed to laugh, but that didn’t help. I knew what was right but did the wrong thing. I was no longer capable of sticking to what I knew. I was all mixed up, laughing and crying at myself.

In this state I arrived in Nuremberg, at the Langwasser transitional home. It was a tall apartment block across from Hitler’s party rally grounds. And on the inside: tiny cubicles for sleeping, windowless corridors lit only with fluorescent light, countless offices. And interrogation at the Federal Intelligence Service, the very first day. Then again on the second day, several times, with breaks, and on the third and on the fourth day. I knew very well that the Securitate wasn’t living with me in Nuremberg, here it was only the Federal Intelligence Service. I was in its domain now, but where had I come, damn it — where? These interrogators were called examiners, the doors were labeled Examining Station A and Examining Station B. Examiner A examined whether I didn’t “have an assignment.” The word “informer” wasn’t used, but the examination went on: “Did you have anything to do with the secret service there?” “It had to do with me, that’s different,” I said. “Let me determine that, after all, that’s what I’m paid for,” he said. It was outrageous. Then Examiner B examined: “Did you want to overthrow the regime? You can go ahead and admit it now, it’s all water under the bridge, the snows of yesteryear.”

Then it happened, I couldn’t stand having this examiner dismissing my life with a figure of speech. I jumped up and said, much too loudly: “It’s always the same snow.” I never liked the phrases “water under the bridge” or “snows of yesteryear” because they refuse to recognise what happened yesterday. I now realised exactly what it was about these phrases I couldn’t take: I can’t abide the base way a metaphor makes room for itself, how it shows contempt. How insecure these expressions must be to boast like that, to sound so arrogant. It’s clear from the expression that the snow must have been important yesterday, otherwise there’s no point in mentioning it, and no reason to rid oneself of it. I didn’t tell the examiner what was running through my head, back then.

In Romanian there are two words for snow. One of them, nea, is the poetic word for snow. And nea in Romanian is also a man you don’t know well enough to be on a first-name basis, but too well to address formally. In German we might call him Onkel — uncle. Sometimes words deploy themselves as they see fit. I had to defend myself against the examiner and against what the Romanian language was suggesting to me: It’s always the same snow and always the same uncle.

And then something else happened. As I was being interrogated by a German secret police officer, having arrived from the dictatorship at the transitional home in Nuremberg, I thought: Here I am, freshly rescued, and I’m sitting here in the west like the calf on the divan. It wasn’t until I registered the EYE HUNGER of the official that I understood that it wasn’t just the tortured calf with the broken foot that had been abused, but also — and even more deviously — the pampered calf on the divan.

Every winter the white seamstress would come to our home. She’d stay for two weeks, sleeping in our house. We called her the white seamstress because she only sewed white things: shirts and undershirts and underpants and nightshirts and bras and stockings and bed linens. I spent a lot of time near the sewing machine, watching the stitches flow and become a seam. On her last evening with us, I said to her after supper: “Sew me something to play with.”

She said: “What should I sew for you.”

I said: “Sew me a piece of bread.”

She said: “But then you’ll have to eat everything you played with.”

Eat everything you play with. That could be a definition for writing. Who knows: I have to eat everything I write, and what I don’t write devours me. Even though I eat it, it doesn’t disappear. And even though it consumes me, I don’t disappear. The same thing always happens during writing, when words want to be something else in order to be accurate, when objects become independent and verbal images steal what doesn’t belong to them. Perhaps it’s precisely during writing, when words become something else in order to be accurate, that what’s operating is always the same snow and always the same uncle.

Translated by Philip Boehm