Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy described Ms. Müller as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” Her award coincides with the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Europe.
Ms. Müller, 56, emigrated to Germany in 1987 after years of persecution and censorship in Romania. She is the first German writer to win the Nobel in literature since Günter Grass in 1999 and the 13th winner writing in German since the prize was first given in 1901. She is the 12th woman to capture the literature prize. But unlike previous winners like Doris Lessing and V. S. Naipaul, Ms. Müller is a relative unknown outside of literary circles in Germany.
She has written some 20 books, but just 5 have been translated into English, including the novels “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment.”
At a packed news conference on Thursday at the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in Berlin, where she lives, Ms. Müller, petite, wearing all black and sitting on a leopard-print chair, appeared overwhelmed by all the cameras in her face. She spoke of the 30 years she spent under a dictatorship and of friends who did not survive, describing living “every day with the fear in the morning that in the evening one would no longer exist.”
When asked what it meant that her name would now be mentioned in the same breath as German greats likeThomas Mann and Heinrich Böll, Ms. Müller remained philosophical. “I am now nothing better and I’m nothing worse,” she said, adding: “My inner thing is writing. That I can hold on to.”
Earlier in the day, at a news conference in Stockholm, Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Ms. Müller was honored for her “very, very distinct special language” and because “she has really a story to tell about growing up in a dictatorship ... and growing up as a stranger in your own family.”
Just two days before the announcement, Mr. Englund criticized the jury panel as being too “Eurocentric.” Europeans have won 9 of the past 10 literature prizes. On Thursday Mr. Englund told The Associated Press that it was easier for Europeans to relate to European literature. “It’s the result of psychological bias that we really try to be aware of,” he said.
Ms. Müller was born and raised in the German-speaking town of Nitzkydorf, Romania. Her father served in the Waffen-SS in World War II, and her mother was deported to a work camp in the Soviet Union in 1945. At university, Ms. Müller opposed the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu and joined Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of dissident writers who sought freedom of speech.
She wrote her first collection of short stories in 1982 while working as a translator for a factory. The stories were censored by the Romanian authorities, and Ms. Müller was fired from the factory after refusing to work with the Securitate secret police. The uncensored manuscript of “Niederungen” — or “Nadirs” — was published in Germany two years later to critical acclaim.
“Niederungen” and other early works depicted life in a village and the repression its residents faced. Her later novels, including “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment,” approach allegory in their graphic portrayals of the brutality suffered by modest people living under totalitarianism. Her most recent novel, “Atemschaukel,” is a finalist for the German Book Prize.
Even in Germany, Ms. Müller is not well known. “She’s not one of these public trumpeters — or drum-beaters, like Grass,” said Volker Weidermann, a book critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper. “She’s more reserved.”
Ms. Müller also has a low profile in the English-speaking world, although “The Land of Green Plums” won the International Dublin Impac Literary Award in 1998.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 2001, Peter Filkins described “The Appointment” as using the thuggery of the government as “a backdrop to the brutality and betrayal with which people treat one another in their everyday lives.”
Lyn Marven, a lecturer in German studies at the University of Liverpool who has written about Ms. Müller, said: “It’s an odd disjunction to write about traumatic experiences living under a dictatorship in a very poetic style. It’s not what we expect, certainly.”
Michael Naumann, Germany’s former culture minister and the former head of Metropolitan Books, one of Ms. Müller’s publishers in the United States, praised her work but said she was “not a public intellectual.”
She has, however, spoken out against oppression and collaboration. In Germany, for example, she has criticized those East German writers who worked with the secret police.
A spokeswoman for Metropolitan, a unit of Macmillan that released English translations of “The Land of Green Plums” and “The Appointment” in the United States, said the publisher would reissue hardcover editions of those books. Northwestern University Press, which published the paperback version of “The Land of Green Plums,” said it was reprinting 20,000 copies.
In Germany, Ms. Müller’s publisher, Carl Hanser Verlag, was also scrambling to reprint more copies of “Atemschaukel,” as well as other titles from her backlist. Asked whether winning the prize while relatively young could hurt her work, Ms. Müller said: “I thought after every book, never again, it’s my last. Then two years pass, and I start writing again. It doesn’t feel any different after I’ve won this prize.”
The awards ceremony is planned for Dec. 10 in Stockholm. As the winner, Ms. Müller will receive 10 million Swedish kronor, or about $1.4 million.