On 31 August 2008, before the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, signandsight.com published an excerpt from Herta Müller‘s latest novel, “Everything I Own I Carry With Me” (“Atemschaukel”). Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt that captures the ambiguities of close friendships in police states, at least judging from our own experience in Romania in 1983-84.
The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing [from my Securitate file]. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. For two years I sat with four bookkeepers in the office. They worked out the wages of the workers, I turned the pages of my fat technical dictionaries. I didn’t understand the first thing about hydraulic or non-hydraulic presses, levers or gauges. When the dictionary offered three, four, or even seven terms, I went out onto the factory floor and asked the workers. They told me the correct Romanian word without any knowledge of German – they knew their machines. In the third year a “protocol office” was established. The company director moved me there to work alongside two newly employed translators, one from French, the other from English. One was the wife of a university professor who, even in my student days, was said to be a Securitate informant. The other was the daughter-in-law of the second most senior secret service officer in town. Only those two had the key to the file cupboard. When foreign professionals visited, I had to leave the office. Then, apparently, I was to be put through two recruitment tests with the secret police officer Stana, to be made suitable for the office. After my second refusal, his goodbye was: “You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river.”
One morning when I turned up for work, my dictionaries were lying on the floor outside the office door. My place had been taken by an engineer, and I was no longer allowed into the office. I couldn’t go home, they would have sacked me there and then. Now I had no table, no chair. For two days, I defiantly sat my eight hours with the dictionaries on a concrete staircase that joined the ground and first floors, trying to translate so that no one could say I wasn’t working. The office staff walked past me in silence. My friend Jenny, an engineer, knew about what was happening to me. Every day on our way home I explained it to her in detail. She came to me in the lunch break and sat down on the stairs. We ate together as we had done before in my office. Over the loudspeaker in the yard we could always hear the workers’ choruses about the happiness of the people. She ate and cried for me, I didn’t. I had to be strong.
On the third day I installed myself at Jenny’s desk, she cleared a corner for me. On the fourth day too. It was a large office. On the fifth morning she was waiting for me outside the door. “I am no longer allowed to let you in the office. Just think, my colleagues say you are a spy. ” “How’s that possible,” I asked. “But you know where we’re living,” she reasoned. I took my dictionaries and sat down on the stairs again. This time I cried too. When I went out onto the factory floor to ask about a word, the workers whistled after me and shouted: “Informer”. It was a witches’ cauldron. How many spies were there in Jenny’s office and on the shop floor. They were acting on instructions. There were orders from above to attack me, the slander was meant to force me to resign. At the beginning of these turbulent times my father died. I no longer had a grip on things, I had to reassure myself that I really existed in the world, and began to write down the story of my – these writings formed the basis of the short stories in “Nadirs”.
The fact that I was now considered a spy because I had refused to become one was worse than the attempt to recruit me and the death threat. I was being slandered by precisely the people that I was protecting by refusing to spy on them. Jenny and a handful of colleagues could see the games that were being played with me. But those who knew me less well could not. How could I have explained to them what was going on, how could I have proved the opposite. It was completely impossible, as the Securitate knew only too well, and that is exactly why they did it to me. They knew, too, that such perfidy would be far more destructive than any blackmail. You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul. You just feel surrounded by horror.
How long this situation lasted, I no longer know. It seemed endless to me. It was probably just weeks. Finally, I was sacked….
My file at least answered one painful question. A year after my departure from Romania, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassment in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I was sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and the additional visas for France and Greece, I confronted her directly: “You don’t get a passport like that for nothing, what did you do to get it?” Her answer: “The secret service has sent me, and I was desperate to see you again.” Jenny had cancer – she is long dead now. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the outset, her friendship just part of the job. After her return, I see from the file, she delivered a detailed description of the flat and of our habits, as “SURSA (source) SANDA”.
But in a bugging protocol from 21 December, 1984, a note in the margin, next to Jenny’s name, reads: “We must identify JENI, apparently there is great trust between them.” This friendship, which meant so much to me, was ruined by her visit to Berlin, a terminally ill cancer patient lured into betrayal after chemotherapy. The copied key made it clear that Jenny had fulfilled her task behind our backs. I had to ask her to leave our Berlin flat at once. I had to chase my closest friend out in order to protect myself and Richard Wagner from her assignment. This tangle of love and betrayal was unavoidable. A thousand times I have turned her visit over in my mind, mourned our friendship, discovering to my disbelief that after my emigration, Jenny had a relationship with a Securitate officer. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown naturally and had not been arranged by the secret service, and that Jenny didn’t spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies, trawling through all the poison for a part that isn’t contaminated, however small. That my file proves that the feelings between us were real, almost makes me happy now.