Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. by Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 150 pp. $14.95.
Jenny Erpenbeck may be an exceptional writer—where most writers seem to be continuously chasing after the next hook to a story, Erpenbeck’s fiction has at its core an uncanny blankness. In The Old Child, the title novella from Erpenbeck’s first story collection to appear in English, an orphan tactically maneuvers adolescence in a children’s home by making herself as invisible as possible. Erpenbeck’s second book to appear in English, The Book of Words, is also about a young girl, who, coming of age under a totalitarian regime, finds greater truth in silence after language itself becomes corrupted for her by administered lies and unspeakable political violence. Invisibility, silence—Erpenbeck’s writing is at its sharpest when she writes passivity. Visitation, Erpenbeck’s latest book, then provides an ideal protagonist: a house. Situated on a Brandenburg lake outside of Berlin, it serves less as a static object in Erpenbeck’s hands as it does a vessel onto which its generations of inhabitants write their own histories, inhabiting the house with a story of its own to be read.
That story begins with a geological prologue of the glacier melt, which, millennia later, would result in the Brandenburg lakes. From there it picks up at a newly unified Germany of the 1890s and the wealthy farmer who presides over the land—and who ultimately parcels off tracts to be sold during the Weimar years to an architect and to a Jewish cloth manufacturer. Russian liberating forces pillage it at the end of the Second World War. Its occupants flee to West Berlin before the Wall is built. German Bolsheviks return from their war-time exile in Russia and settle onto the property, now collectivized by municipal authorities of the GDR. The fall of the Wall gives rise to dispute over who the rightful owners are. The house falls into disrepair, and by book’s end, it is razed.
These events form the narrative frame, and it would be tempting to read German history into them; however, Erpenbeck is careful not to chronicle. The house’s location outside of Berlin places it outside of political capital, and its primary use as a summer or weekend home observes a different mode of timekeeping that is better marked by perennial cues from the landscape. Each inhabitant’s story occupies a chapter in Visitation, and like a refrain, each chapter concludes with a litany of the gardener’s labor—pruning, turning over soil, splitting wood, and so forth. (The gardener’s memory of the war includes the detail of the potato beetle invading Poland—a delicate nod.) Nameless throughout and characterized solely by the tasks he performs, the gardener remains indentured, not merely to the land and its succession of holders but to the narrative as well, providing constancy and resilience after each chapter’s upheaval.
Visitation‘s most arresting chapter takes place outside of where the house can bear witness. After the Warsaw Ghetto has been liquidated, the twelve-year-old niece of the Jewish cloth manufacturer hides in a broom closet or crawl space in one of the tenements. She has the grim understanding that either she will die waiting to be found, or else she will be found only to be killed. She keeps fear at bay by imagining there in the cramped darkness her summers spent at her uncle’s house on the lake because it is “the only place that can still be counted on to resemble itself.” Here Erpenbeck’s writing is at its hardest and its best, perhaps in no small measure because it returns her to familiar preoccupations. However, in Visitation, Erpenbeck manages to perfect her treatment of themes previously taken up in both The Old Child and The Book of Words—a young girl practicing nonexistence as a means of survival. In both of her previous books, however, Erpenbeck made the decision to break the rules of her fiction’s reality at climactic moments, deflating the impact of her narrative work by leaving her reader to puzzle out what was real and what was not. In Visitation, though, Erpenbeck keeps her characters successfully anchored in their own realities throughout, allowing the house itself to assume the fantastic realm for them to retreat to.
Erpenbeck delights in meticulously detailingthe house and its “quality German workmanship.” Although the specificity of the description frequently makes for lovely prose, it oddly does little to spatialize the house itself in the reader’s imagination. Erpenbeck, too, modulates her narrative pacing through paragraph-length fragments, which add up over the course of a chapter to a completed event. Although this works almost entirely to good effect by tautening narrative tension and emphasizing the pleasure of the prose, it can occasionally obscure the telling of the story itself by requiring the reader to re-situate herself with every new paragraph. On the whole, though, Erpenbeck reveals a workmanship in framing the reader’s view and building her narrative in such a way that is “made to measure”—and Susan Bernofsky’s instincts are uncommonly good in translating an author whose work is riddled with specifications. On a basic level, Visitation requires a translator who can capture a multitude of voices, which Bernofsky does with an ease and versatility. However, what stands out even more is her treatment of the stylistic frailties of a narrative which ages along with the house itself.
My only reservation about Visitation is that it reads less vividly once it reaches the GDR, which is a pity when the house-as-surveillor strikes me as being an ideal conceit for the schism between private and public lives under Socialism. Perhaps there’s a temptation for writers to do greater imaginative work when a story lies just beyond the era they know firsthand. Maybe Erpenbeck merely writes the ways in which people move quietly on with their lives after history’s upheaval. Still, under the eye of a stultifying government, people were forced to lead intensely private lives, and there’s a distinct liberty to be found in conveying those interior lives within the theater of a house. For example, a character attempts to swim across the Elbe River, and to the West, and ends up imprisoned for it; however, it serves more as a historical marker than an action that richly defines this character. Had Erpenbeck written a different facet of that same event, one that could be contained, and given dramatic rise to, within the walls of the house, it would have animated the era more powerfully.
However, the East can still be read in Visitation. The book ends in the 1990s, after German reunification, when the house falls derelict and is razed. “Until the time comes when a different house will be built on this same spot, the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” In spite of disruptions—even violences—everything will not only resume, but will come to resemble itself again. Even countries will come to resemble themselves again. The East had to be razed, so to speak, to be enfolded into West Germany in order for Germany to “resemble” itself as a reunified nation. However, the East, like the house on the Brandenburg lake, remains a place of rich memory for the people who inhabited it.
Annie Janusch is Translation Editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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