BTBA 2011 First Look-Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Best Translated Book Award 2011

Jenny Erpenbeck~Germany

“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.”

With moments of gut-wrenching honesty, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation travels over the past one hundred years of the land situated on Brandenburg lake outside of Berlin through the fragmented, linked stories of twelve people who inhabited its soil.  Trussed masterfully by Susan Bernofsky’s translation, the plaintive literary cries of Erpenbeck’s characters moan loudly or suffer in silence the crimes around them, committed against them or witnessed by them in prose that arrests and inverts, unflinchingly and courageously.  Historical context not fertile ground for a florid style, hers is a rustic and evocative style that employs all the senses in exploring the facets of pain and loss.  She is not melodramatic or expected. 

The incredibly storied history of 20th century Germany is on display through the characters who live in the house on the lake and she makes no excuses for Germany or them, instead giving is succinct voices to capture the unique voices of everyday people attempting to survive the Germany that lurks around them.  From a Jewish family in the 1930s to real estate agents of the late 20th century, the reader is presented with brief portraits of emotionally textured people who want to lead simple lives.  And some of these tales become so harrowing and twisted, the images are unforgettable.  One particularly devastating section retells the rape of the architect’s wife, an older German woman hiding in the house, by a young Red Army officer whose officers have overtaken the house:

Then he grows calm, and calmly he begins to kiss the lips he cannot see, he who has never before kissed anyone on the mouth, he kisses this most probably German mouth that is full and perhaps also slightly wilted, but he cannot judge this because he has never before kissed anyone on the mouth, then he releases her arms and strokes the woman’s head, she is no longer struggling, but he hears her begin to cry, he strokes her head as if to comfort her, and then doesn’t know what to do next, although he’s seen often enough what his men do in comparable situations. Mama, he says, without knowing what he is saying, it’s so dark that you cannot even see your own words, and she thrusts him away from her, he stumbles, falls down, she kicks him, he tries to grasp her once more and in the process takes hold of her knees, and then she stands still, then she slowly pulls her dress up a little, he rests his forehead against her belly, she appears to be naked under her dress, he inhales the smell of life emanating from her curly hair.  She says one or two words, but her words too are invisible in this dark hiding place.

Told from this detached close third person, it makes the rest of the passage one of the many that showcases Erpenbeck’s skill with form and character as the two characters vie for dignity in their designated roles of victim and tormentor.  This work is unflinching and unsettling and it preys on the fixed idea of structure, but never leaves the reader feeling ungrounded.  The one recurring character that appears throughout the novel is the gardener whose dedication to the land despite the tragedy that has happened upon it is so heartbreaking and tender,  the reader can looks for him for solace and assurance that hope still thrives.  Erpenbeck also uses repetition with words, phrases and actions that illuminate the hypnotic and melodic quality of her prose. 

strays from the mainstream dramatic novel as we know it, but should nonetheless be part of the discussion.  I haven’t read her other works, but plan to do so in order to fully comprehend her direction and distinctive voice as an author.  I did feel at times that the novel was disjointed which perhaps is due to it’s fragmentary nature, but in total, an impressive work.  She carefully parses the many planes of what visitation can mean, literally and figuratively, and we are left to be disquieted by the ghosts of her Germany’s soil.


By Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions Publishing
Paperback, 151 pp.
ISBN: 9780811218351

Jenny Erpenbeck’s other works available in English:

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