I mentioned Herta Müller briefly in this post mainly to chide her for suggesting that the Romanian word rândunica ‘swallow’ meant “sitting-in-a-row”; that was excessively peevish of me, and I’m glad to have the opportunity (thanks, Dan!) to link to a very interesting review by Costica Bradatan of her book Cristina and her Double: Selected Essays. I was, naturally, particularly interested in the section on cursing:
Of particular interest to Müller is the endless capacity of this language to generate curses. She delights in studying the wide assortment of Romanian curses, the mechanisms whereby they are produced, and the political attitudes they embody. As in most languages, sexual imagery plays an important part. In Romanian, she notices, “When people are angry they say get fucked in the ear, the nose, the head.” When someone “interfered in matters that didn’t concern them the Rumanians said: ‘Sorrow fucks you.’” What fascinates Müller above all is the inoffensive, good-natured side of the whole process. Romanian cursing could be a form of conviviality:
At a company meeting a woman said in a rage; ‘What the devil, my prick, do you want?’ After the woman had calmed down she apologized for the word ‘devil.’ The people in the room laughed. Then the woman asked, offended: ‘Why, my cunt, are you laughing?’
Müller is enthralled; she cannot get enough of this linguistic feast. The way Romanian curses can accommodate opposing elements, mix vulgarity and beauty, and navigate between offense and good-naturedness, earns her unconditional admiration: “I have always envied this language for its vitality,” she says. Indeed, Romanian cursing turned out to be addictive. When she left the country, Müller managed to smuggle it out among the few belongings she was allowed to take with her: “Even now when I curse I speak Rumanian, because German has not curses so picturesque. The words are all there in German, but they aren’t up to the job.” Similarly, long after he moved to France and adopted the country’s language, Cioran would still resort to Romanian for curses. French was of no help to him in that regard, even though by then he had become a very good writer in that language.
I was also struck by “Romanians didn’t rebel, but they called cockroaches ‘Russians’ and developed an industry of political jokes in which the Soviet Union figured prominently”; Russians call cockroaches прусак ‘Prussian.’ Anyway, the whole thing is worth a read.
It reminded me in some ways of this recent talk on “patriophobia” by one of my favorite essayists, Gasan Guseinov; if you know Russian, I recommend it.