For decades in Eastern Europe besides the common repressive regimes there was a visible, shared weariness of repression and paternalism due to dictatorship. And there was also a shared, hidden desire – the desire to escape.
I know people who lived their lives for years with a projection of the possibility for escape. They thought of escape every day and oriented their life towards it. For example, at university they focused on Oriental Studies for years to just to apply at some later date perhaps for an official trip to Japan – and then, when this opportune moment arose, at the first transit point in the first airport in the West, they interrupted the trip to claim asylum. Others became specialists in technical drawing because this profession involved the skill of surveying. Word got around that the terrain was sometimes surveyed close to the border. So some people chose their profession as the chance of the potential opportunity for escape – and the profession stuck and never suited them and half their life they felt tricked by their illusion because the prospect of escape never came. You can say that thousands of people spent half of their lives in the conditional tense of escape. In this complete wall-to-wall misery the hidden thought of escape was a mixture of despair and hope.
From this time I know that there are collective and individual reasons for escape, thus general and personal reasons. These are equally strong. But the general causes need no reinforcement whatsoever from personal ones to make escape a reality when it finally becomes possible. The general, omnipresent cause is sufficient, the collective hopelessness and bitterness. It grew in everyone’s minds. And it is an obsession, a cause anyway because it suggests: it’s better anyway than here in any other place. This conclusion had been taken for granted over the decades in Eastern Europe. It was ubiquitous. Today once again people make their escape based on this conclusion.
Total resignation underlies this conclusion. This is why it’s so absurd when the refugees, who are arriving now in our country, are described as an invasion or as an avalanche. Escape has nothing to do with aggression. Escape is defensive in every detail that it comprises.
It was always a puzzle to me when the generally existing, silent, courageous thought of escape became the wild and risky, profoundly political attempt at escape. For there was a crucial point at which the quite ordinary, tolerant, inconspicuous, resigned and politically passive individual risked his or her entire existence and escaped at any cost. Because the Romanian borders were closed, they were death zones. At the Hungarian border, soldiers shooting and trained dogs tore refugees to shreds. And at the Yugoslavian border there were boats in the Danube that hunted down swimming refugees and ripped them to pieces with the boats’ propellers. The chances of survival weren’t even fifty-fifty; the end of every escape was open to fatality. Nevertheless, over the years hundreds of thousands fled in secret and often all alone. The bullets, the dogs, the boats’ propellers didn’t frighten anybody away.
I worked in an engineering factory and time and again one morning an otherwise punctual, reliable worker didn’t turn up for work any longer – and then he didn’t ever come back. A few days later we heard he had escaped. It was quite rare to hear a few months later, off the record, that he had sent a message from Munich, Paris or Toronto. Very often, however, he had disappeared from the face of the earth and remained so for ever. He had arrived nowhere. Although none of us had seen his intention to escape, nobody was surprised if one day his colleague at work escaped. And nobody was shocked when he was killed. A gentle whisper of pity was enough for the colleagues. This pity was even tinged with a hint of envy, although the escapee was dead. Bitter envy which was personally hurtful. It was by no means schadenfreude, but a kind of admiration. Like a medal of sorrow for the daring act of fleeing. Afterwards, he was never mentioned again. It would have been frivolous to remember his death in conversation. It would have been half self-betrayal because you yourself also harboured the thought of escape. You had to stay calm inside the mind; escape was in the conditional tense, the hope of the better, personal opportunity. And that worked best through silence.
What do people do before an escape? Some went to the fortune teller. They wanted to fathom out their chances by arranging cards or reading coffee grounds. They wanted to predict chance, perhaps even to exert a gracious influence on destiny.
I had one friend who was a seamstress and fortune teller. I let her make my clothes. But once I happened to be trying things on when a client came to have his fortune told. She trusted me; we had known each other for ages. She hid me in the room and ushered him to the kitchen table. The door of the room was only pulled to – I was allowed to listen in. Yes, it was about escape. Fortune telling must be credible, the main thing was the text of the fortune teller, the coffee grounds alone weren’t enough. And the text was poetry. It went something like this:
“Here I see two feet, that’s you. And there where you are is something green. It doesn’t start here and also doesn’t finish here. It is big. Look, now I see your back very small, it is growing into your back. Don’t go there. Don’t go into the cornfield, into the tobacco or turnip field. And don’t walk over the grass; don’t run into the green space. Here, I see a long neck; it’s a swan and you are arriving at a sparkling river.” The seamstress paused, sighed and asked, “Can you swim? That’s the Danube.” His voice was too soft. I didn’t understand his answer.
While listening I thought how beautiful these surreal pictures are. The aesthetic beauty of language stays with everyone – even more so the less the person has to do with language. Without being accustomed to the beauty of language, its impact is the greatest. But how can telling lies be so beautiful? I asked myself. But that was too simple because the seamstress painted the pictures with her eyes in the coffee grounds; she deciphered them and believed herself in what she was telling there. It was invented, but not a lie. And this aesthetic beauty of language became a dimension that defined the place of escape. The suggestions became concrete instructions in the mind, maps of the escape, plans with methods, times and geographical data. The aesthetic beauty of language was translated into the deed.
Of course, a few weeks later I asked the seamstress whether she knew anything about the man, whether his escape was a success. She said he was lucky; he was now in Canada.
In his lectures on poetics, Heinrich Böll once referred very briefly to the “search for an inhabitable language”. After the war in a country where not only the houses were bombed, for Böll, this phrase probably implied something quite concrete. But he doesn’t add a single additional word of explanation for us about what it is. It remains in suspense and the cryptic element makes this expression so metaphorical and strong. So convincing and paradigmatic. You can use it how you like. Translating the beauty of language into action can be “inhabitable language”, especially when making an escape. One puts trust in language to go away from home, to arrive somewhere in a foreign place where anyway it can only be better than back home. And from Böll one quickly attunes with Jorge Semprun, who states that not language as such is home, but what is spoken. Hence, the content of speech can be “inhabitable language”.
I associate “inhabitable language” with escape because Böll also asks young students whether they can ever make the country, which they have taken over from the war generation in a tormented condition, a “state for which one will feel homesickness”. For Böll that was a utopia. Because he doubted this. Because “between 1933 and 1939, everything that up until then one could call ‘Germany’ in some form, perished, or was forced to go abroad”. He wrote that in 1960 in a letter to Jenny Aloni, who had escaped in 1939 from Paderborn to Palestine, and with whom Böll maintained a lifelong friendship.
Böll also doubted this because after the war only the expulsion of Germans from the East was regarded as “expulsion from home”. In 1973, Böll wrote that the “word expulsion from one’s native land (Heimatvertreibung) attains another, better meaning if one determines its beginning in 1933”. Yet to this very day this has not happened; unfortunately, nobody listened to Heinrich Böll. In the landscape of German commemoration there is still nowhere which puts on the agenda this initial expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from Nazi Germany. That highlights the great misfortune of flight and exile. The endless routes to Mexico, Shanghai, New Zealand or Argentina. The desperation at the borders, the good and bad cases of pure chance, the desolation of nerves that are permanently broken. In 1974 in his PEN speech in Jerusalem Böll said the “German word misery” was a “forebear of the word foreign”. The émigrés never knew whether they could afford their homesickness both for political as well as psychological reasons. Nobody called them back. Yet post-war Germany would have urgently needed their experience and personal integrity.
Yet in spite of this perhaps contemporary Germany became a ‘homesick or nostalgic home’. Not only for those of us who live here. Also for people who have to escape dictatorship and war. They feel homesickness for peace and security. And because Germany can offer them that they are homesick for Germany. In their thousands they have the same homesickness that East Europeans of my age still know well even without war – homesickness for future.
When I travelled by train from Timisoara to Bucharest for a while the tracks ran really close to the Danube. You could see across to Yugoslavia. And when this part of the journey began everybody in every carriage gradually stood up. Without reason, without saying a word everyone stood up, absolutely everyone; they walked along the aisle and looked across the border towards Yugoslavia. Young and old, and even policemen and soldiers in uniform were standing among them. It was a silence like hypnosis. Like a revelation everyone knew what the other person was thinking now. Silence and watching; eyes like slanting mirrors. The seagull or swallow in the sky, they were flying around one’s neck. And when the train pulled away from the Danube everyone returned to their carriage again without a word. Everyone sat down again and talked again about some subject from beforehand – as if the interruption from the sparkle of the Danube had not happened.
I was always a little lightheaded from this hypnosis in the aisle; I had a queasy feeling when I imagined what it would be like if everyone could unexpectedly escape from the train. Mass exodus happened all that time, but in secret, independently of each other in individual, concealed actions.
And it was not only like this in Romania. Nobody has counted how many people escaped from East European dictatorships, day by day. When the Soviet tanks also came to Budapest in 1956 and 1968 to Prague well over 200,000 Hungarians and 400,000 Czechs fled to the West. That’s why it annoys me immensely that the East European countries today act as if escape were not part of their history. Especially the “ramblers”, who aren’t embarrassed to shout for Putin in Dresden should know that. When it built the wall the GDR certainly set a cynical memorial for escape.
I believe that when the pull of total despair captures a country the mass psychosis of escape emerges. This is the case in Syria and Eritrea. And the pull never ends when the despair subsides, the murdering acts of the dictator, war and the apocalypse of Islamic terror. War is a political enemy and refugees in wars are politically persecuted and every single one of them needs protection. This protection cannot be limited merely because so many need it.
Before the escape expectations of the future are not real. And after the escape they also remain changeable. Anyway the arrival is perceived as rescue. Rescue is a tired word. But everything about it is better than life at home with barrel bombs in the streets. Heinrich Böll was in the war and he wrote, “Most people died young, and dying isn’t easy when one is young: there is a small, official deception in the words ‘killed’ or ‘fallen’; in these words there is a pretence of a suddenness of death that is only granted to a very few. The dying become silent in a way that resembles disdain; they also easily shiver because the macabre majesty that comes upon them is cold.”
Until now there was homesickness for future, but after the arrival the future clings to the skin. Future sounds like shelter, but it is deceiving. For future is abstract and shelter is concrete. Beneath the soles of the feet shelter is a real place. But the future is an unreal time unknown to itself. The present never stops, and one drags around the past. Who knows, perhaps the future starts when the first calm sets in after the escape.
By Herta Müller
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
Acceptance speech for the award of the Heinrich Böll Prize 2015
(The spoken text applies)
© Herta Müller
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 10 December 2015.