The Year of Reading Dangerously: Jenny Erpenbeck
Visitation is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels to be translated into English (you can pick up the other two, The Old Child and The Book of Words, in one volume) and yet further proof of her astonishing talent. In praising her work, Michel Faber singles out The Old Child for its “jewel-like perfection”, but I have to admit that I regard The Book of Words, an examination of a Latin American dictatorship from the point of view of a child, as even better. In Visitation she continues to explore the cruelties of the twentieth century from the confined space of a single viewpoint, but here the viewpoint is that of a place rather than a character, the banks of a lake in Brandenburg where an architect builds a summerhouse. Largely contained within this setting, we move from mind to mind, imitating as a reader the urge described in the novel’s German title, Heimsuching – home-seeking.
Translator Susan Bernofsky’s English title is equally appropriate. The novel begins like a folk tale, listing superstitions related to marriage and death, and telling us of the Mayor’s youngest daughter, Klara, who will inherit the wood where the summerhouse will be built, her meeting with a mysterious fisherman, and her descent into madness. Like all folk-tales the story has supernatural overtones, particularly when Klara meets the fisherman:
“Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are around her in this bit of the woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air.”
Here the wood seems to be haunted by the future rather than the past.
Klara’s suicide leads to the wood being sold, one third to the architect who builds the summer house. The narrative immediately transports us to the point where he is forced to leave the house in order to escape to the West, burying valuables in the ground and remembering the last time they were hidden, in fear of an advancing Russian army. Immediately Erpenbeck’s central point is clear: home is a fragile concept and one we should not readily identify with a particular place (the word ‘visitation’ also suggests the temporary nature of ‘home’). Throughout the novel characters’ love of the lake and its surroundings is contrasted with the impermanent nature of their residence. Often this is highlighted by possessions left behind, for example the towels of the architect’s Jewish neighbours
“Before it could occur to his wife to wash them, he’d gone swimming and rubbed himself dry with one of the strangers’ towels. Strange towels. Cloth manufacturers these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods.”
In doing this, Erpenbeck presents us with a very moving history of twentieth century Germany and, by extension, Europe. Two particular scenes stand out. One is when Doris, a niece of the Jewish cloth manufacturers, is hiding in the Jewish ghetto her family has been transported to, alone, in a confined space:
“Now only a brief transition lies before her. Either she will starve to death in her hiding place, or she will be found and carted off.”
The chapter is beyond commentary, and ends as follows:
“For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no-one will ever again call her by: Doris.”
The second scene, though not as powerful, is equally memorable, and occurs when the architect’s wife is raped by a Russian officer. In her description, Erpenbeck blurs the boundary between victim and assailant, not in any way condoning rape, but to reach for deeper truths about war. Both these scenes take place not just within houses, or rooms, but within much smaller spaces (the rape takes place in a closet where the woman is hiding). The search for home is echoed in the way these characters attempt to protect themselves through enclosure: neither is safe.
Though these two scenes stand out, they are only two among many. Erpenbeck makes us live with each character she introduces as if we are immersed into their consciousness: it is something more than sympathy. She is one of the brightest young writers in Europe today.
Danger rating: Each character in Erpenbeck’s novel is like a plunge into an ice bath, shocking both the body and mind, cleansing and reinvigorating.