If you have not heard of Herta Mueller, the winner of this year's Nobel prize for literature, then you might feel that the Committee have done it again - pulling an obscure writer out of their large, literary hats. But Pete Ayrton, her UK publisher at Serpent's Tail, argues that that is precisely their role: To bring to our attention the work of neglected writers who are underappreciated in the Anglo Saxon world.
It is certainly true that there is always less interest in the Nobel Prize for Literature in this country unless a British or American writer wins the prize. So, here is the case for "obscurity" being a good thing. When the announcement was made live on air, I was unable to comment because, apart from her novel, The Land of Green Plums, which won the IMPAC prize in 1998, I couldn't say very much about her. In fact, I couldn't even remember the name of that novel!
I have since read extracts of said book and I will now buy it and read it properly. Mueller writes about a group of young students whose experiences under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu are graphically observed.
Interestingly, the book was not written in Romanian, but in German. Mueller comes from a family who were a part of the German-speaking minority in Romania, and her sensibility is informed by that perspective. She now lives in Berlin, where her novels are published to great critical acclaim. A bit like Franz Kafka writing in German in Prague, Mueller saw in her mother tongue a direct and poignant expression of alienation. It could be argued that the work loses some of its significance when read in translation.
All of this, though, forces the reader to confront the complex tapestry of Eastern European history in the late 20th Century. And although the author left Romania in the 1980s, she remains interested in the issues of oppression and exile, which makes her a universal writer.
In fact, she sees it as her duty to write about those things, and she wrote the Land of Green Plums in memory of Romanian friends who were killed under Ceausescu.
James Joyce never won the Nobel Prize, nor did Vladimir Nabokov, but they were giants in their lifetimes. I am glad Herta Mueller has won, because from today, she will be known to a much wider readership than she ever thought possible.