It might not look like much – the cover is a grainy black and white, with a picture of a rather unattractive toad – but this book, Niederungen, is probably the most sought-after of Herta Müller’s publications… or at least it is from where I’m sitting. There is only one copy to be found for sale on the internet (believe me, I’ve looked hard!) and it’s going for just shy of 1000 Euros – which is a little bit beyond my budget…
The book has a fascinating publication history: it’s Müller’s first book, published by Kriterion in Bucharest in 1982. The book is a collection of short stories which largely deal with life in the rural Banat, in surreal, dark, poetic texts, often from a child’s point of view.
An edition appeared in West Germany in 1984, with the same title, but with a slightly different selection of stories. This is often referred to as the uncensored version, but in fact it leaves out some of the more obviously satirical stories (set in the city), which you might expect would have been censored in Romania. Instead this version concentrates on the rural tales, aligning the book with the background of the expatriate Romanian-Germans who had migrated to West Germany.
In 2010, after she won the Nobel Prize, Müller’s publishers Hanser released what they are calling the ‘definitive’ edition, replacing the missing stories and reworking some of the others. But they have kept in three texts which never appeared in the Bucharest edition – they appeared in Müller’s second collection, Drückender Tango [Oppressive Tango] – and some of the revisions are entirely new additions.
All these changes tell us a lot about how Herta Müller has been marketed (note the rather idyllic cover of the recent edition!), and about how texts change over time. Each time the book has been re-edited, this is always portrayed as making it more authentic, rather than new and improved, but in fact the new editions take the stories further and further away from the original Bucharest edition, which makes that book all the more valuable, to those of us researching Müller at least.
An English translation of the (West German version of the) collection, by Sieglinde Lug, appeared in 1999 under the title Nadirs (though you could also translate ‘Niederungen’ more prosaically as ‘lowlands’). For a flavour of the work, you can read a new translation of one short story ‘Oppressive Tango’ by Donal McLaughlin on New Books in German. And you can find out more about Herta Müller in the article I wrote which accompanied Donal’s translation, ‘An Appointment with Romania’s past‘.
And if you have a spare 1000€ and fancy buying me a present, you know what to get!