Herta Mueller, a little-known Romanian-born author who was persecuted for her critical depictions of life behind the Iron Curtain, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday in an award seen as a nod to the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse.
Mueller, a member of Romania's ethnic German minority, was honored for work that "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," the Swedish Academy said.
"I am very surprised and still can not believe it," Mueller said in a statement released by her publisher in Germany, where she is widely renowned. "I can't say anything more at the moment."
Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, told AP this week that the secretive Swedish Academy had been too "eurocentric" in picking winners.
Mueller, 56, made her debut in 1982 with a collection of short stories titled "Niederungen," or "Nadirs," depicting the harshness of life in a small, German-speaking village in Romania. It was promptly censored by the communist government.
In 1984 an uncensored version was smuggled to Germany, where it was published and devoured by readers. That work was followed by "Oppressive Tango" in Romania but she was eventually prohibited from publishing inside her country for her criticism of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's rule and its feared secret police, the Securitate.
"The Romanian national press was very critical of these works while, outside of Romania, the German press received them very positively," the Academy said.
Emilia Marta, a 55-year-old teacher who moved into the house in Romania's Transylvania Banat region where Mueller was born, said the author has yet to return.
But the mayor of the 1,600-person village of Nichtidorf said she is welcome anytime and would be greeted with honors. "If she will accept this, of course," Ioan Mascovescu said.
Mueller, whose father served in the Waffen SS during World War II and whose mother spent five years in a Soviet work camp, is the third European to win the prize in a row and the 10th German, joining Guenter Grass in 1999 and Heinrich Boell in 1972.
Though Englund said the award was not timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism, that's how it was perceived by many observers.
"By giving the award to Herta Mueller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, (the committee) has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten," said Michael Krueger, head of Mueller's publisher Hanser Verlag.
Mueller emigrated to Germany with her husband in 1987, two years before Ceausescu was toppled from power amid the widening communist collapse across eastern Europe.
"This prize is the international recognition of the oppression of what happened in Romania and Eastern Europe," said Romanian actor Ion Caramitru, an anti-communist who rode atop a tank to the television station in Bucharest during the 1989 revolt and now heads the country's national theater.
Most of Mueller's work is in German, but some works have been translated into English, French and Spanish, including "The Passport," "The Land of Green Plums," "Traveling on One Leg" and "The Appointment."
Mueller's latest novel, "Atemschaukel," or "Swinging Breath" is up for this year's German Book Prize, which will be announced Monday.
Mueller is the 12th woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Recent female winners include Austria's Elfriede Jelinek in 2004 and British writer Doris Lessing in 2007.
The prize includes a 10 million kronor ($1.4 million) prize and will be handed out Dec. 10 in the Swedish capital. AP