Archive for the ‘Jenny Erpenbeck’ Category

Go Went Gone

September 16, 2017

Jenny Erpenbeck has frequently explored the injustices of history, but in her latest novel to be translated into English (by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky), Go Went Gone, she tackles the injustices of the present. Erpenbeck decided to write the novel (which was published in Germany in 2015) in 2013 in response to the media reaction to the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, feeling it was time to look more closely at what was happening, and, in particular, the experience of these displaced people when they arrived in Germany. “You can blank out the suffering of others,” she has said, “but you are also refusing to look at something in yourself.”

The first hurdle a writer must overcome in recreating the lives of refugees is the lack of action, forbidden, as they are, from working, largely spending their time waiting for some response from a distant bureaucracy. Erpenbeck does this by using a retired university professor, Richard, as a conduit for her exploration of their experience. Richard, having just retired, also finds time “completely different”:

“But now he’s being tormented… by time itself. Time is supposed to pass, but not just that.”

The novel opens with a refugee protest, a hunger strike, in Alexanderplatz; Richard’s first involvement occurs as he fails to notice the protest and its ironic intention: We become visible. The demonstration is soon over, but Richard finds it preys on his mind – “He’d really like to know what’s become of the ten men from Alexanderplatz” – and also awakens his interest in the countries the men have come from, bringing him to face to face with his own ignorance:

“The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country – even though, as the article about this faux pas pointed out – there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?”

As Richard is a university professor, his ignorance feels wilful, a decision to ignore a large part of the globe which will later be reflected in the attitudes of his friends. Erpenbeck’s decision to make Richard a professor of Classics also seems very deliberate, a reminder of the importance of the countries around the Mediterranean to our culture (many of the refugees come from Syria, even if they are not Syrian). Richard is also East German and therefore aware that a society which seems almost relentlessly permanent can suddenly collapse. It also gives him an insight into different kinds of borders:

“…as long as a border of the sort he’s been familiar with for most of his life runs along a particular stretch of land and is permeable in either direction after border control procedures, the intentions of the two countries can be perceived by the used of barbed wire, the configuration of fortified barriers, and things of that sort. But the moment these borders are defined only by law, ambiguity takes over…”

Richard discovers that refugees can only claim asylum in the EU country they arrive in, but that those countries are happy to let them leave for another country:

“For a moment, Richard imagines what it would be like having someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic.”

Richard begins to visit refugees who have been housed in a nearby, disused home for the elderly, initially viewing this contact as a research project:

“Richard spends the next two weeks reading several books on the subject of refugees and drawing up a catalogue of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them.”

This allows Erpenbeck to use her own research without having to heavily fictionalise it. (At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Erpenbeck was paired with Jason Donald whose novel Dalila is centred on a fictional Kenyan refugee, a character created by amalgamating the experiences of the many refugees Donald has spoken to; Erpenbeck instead presents her stories largely as she heard them). Whether Richard’s journey mirrors her own, it is certainly intended to encourage the reader to move from interest to empathy. Each refugee’s story is individual, but all can be summarised in the words of Rashid:

“From one day to the next, our former life came to an end.”

Though, in style, this is very different to Erpenbeck’s previous novels – particularly in the intensity of language – it is not without haunting images. Erpenbeck uses a drowning in a lake which Richard’s house overlooks to mirror those killed on the voyage across the Mediterranean:

“They still haven’t found the man at the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t suicide. He died in a swimming accident.”

Waiting for the corpse to rise echoes the waiting of the refugees in a novel about becoming visible: as Erpenbeck has said, “Things that disappear still have their place in the world.”

Go Went Gone shows a skilled novelist engaging with a vital topic, demonstrating the importance of fiction in understanding the world. Any fear that Erpenbeck is in danger of reducing her work to reportage is dismissed by an ending which suddenly plunges us into the human depths she has so fearlessly explored in the past.

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The End of Days

March 8, 2015

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Jenny Erpenbeck’s last novel, Visitation, curated a number of stories around a particular setting. In her latest, The End of Days, she displays the same dissatisfaction with the single story, but this time the nucleus is character. If this sounds more traditional – after all, don’t most novels tell a number of stories connected to one character? – it isn’t: each of Erpenbeck’s tales ends in death, only for her character to resurrected by the power of fiction and continue along a different path. (I haven’t read it, but the premise of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life sounds similar, though the titles themselves suggest a difference of tone).

Erpenbeck’s novels often explore human cruelty and The End of Days is particularly concerned with the treatment of Jews – not only in Germany (Erpenbeck is German) but throughout Eastern Europe. A key scene which reverberates throughout the novel is the death of the central character’s grandfather in Poland after a mob breaks into his house. Though his wife escapes to the roof, he is murdered before he can make it through the gap they have created. It is difficult to decide what is most horrific: her husband’s violent death or the peaceful scene that greets her when she looks down from the roof.

“First she is holding her husband by the hand, and then all she is holding is a clump of flesh, for there is no longer anything alive left she might pull up to where she crouches in then open air. Then she is a Jewish widow holding Death by the hand. She lets go, gets up, and looks down beneath her and the open landscape.”

The contrast between this vicious blood-frenzy and the everyday is typical of Erpenbeck’s writing, as is the perfect, almost poetic phrasing – aided, once again, by the expert translation of Susan Bernofsky. The widow moves away with her daughter – the first of a number of moves in the vain hope of finding a safe haven. In some versions of the stories which follow the daughter never discovers the reason for her father’s absence. The daughter marries, and the novel opens with her own daughter dying:

“The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than there had been to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.”

It is this potential life, or lives, which Erpenbeck goes onto unfold, after first demonstrating the consequences that the baby’s death has for the mother and father. This first Book is followed by an Intermezzo which begins, “But if, for example…” and goes on to describe the effect of the child’s survival, including the relocation of the family to Vienna. We then re-join them in Book II shortly after the end of the First World War. The pattern is now set: each of the five Books will end with her death at different stages of her life; the Intermezzo which follows will suggest a route to survival, and we will begin again.

There is nothing life-affirming in this journey, however. We are taken beyond the effects of the First World War, through the Second World War, and east to Russia. The girl’s birth in 1902 means that her life is that of the 20th century. When she survives as teenager she becomes radicalised and joins the Communist party, leaving for Moscow as result of the rise of Nazism. In her final life she lives long enough to see the reunification of Germany. Throughout Erpenbeck demonstrates that, though she may be able to conjure survival with her pen, survival in the world itself is difficult – and not dying is the least of it, particularly for women. Avenues of survival are few, and often rely on men – prostitution features more than once. While Erpenbeck uses the novel’s structure to show the role fate plays in death, it is the characters’ lives which feel fated, and often outwith their control:

“How long does a life last anyhow?
Seventy or eighty years?
Doesn’t she already know more than she can bear?”

Throughout the family carry with them a complete set of Goethe – representing the civilisation they never find – until eventually it, too, has to be sold. When the protagonist’s son unknowingly encounters it in an antique shop – along with other jetsam from his mother’s life – he contemplates buying it, but decides:

“…who knows whether he’d still have time to read an edition of collected works, he isn’t getting any younger.”

Time may seem to be the enemy, but Erpenbeck’s novel suggests that we might live many lives unfulfilled.

Visitation

January 23, 2011

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.