on Visitation, a novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
More than seven miles long and a mile wide, the Scharmützelsee -- also known as “Märkisches Meer” -- is the biggest lake in the German state of Brandenburg, located about 35 miles southwest of Berlin. A lakeside property there is the evanescent focal point of Jenny Erpenbeck’s resonant third novel, Visitation. The arrivals and desperate departures of its inhabitants, a series of acquisitions and abandonments, trace the surges of 20th century history in northern Europe.
But the novel’s first sentence reads, “Approximately twenty-four thousand years ago, a glacier advanced until it reached the large outcropping of rock that now is nothing more than a gentle hill above where the house stands.” The flat-toned recital of geological facts establishes the narrator’s necessary distance and absorptive mind – a perspective on the dispassionate ravages of long time and the grave wounds of recent years. In its novelistic techniques, Visitation obliquely announces itself as an alternative text, rooted in a folkloric tradition yet branching through the often macabre and enigmatic modern story-telling of Eastern Europe.
The first owner of the property is Wurrach, town mayor and father to four daughters – the youngest of which is Klara, regarded by the villagers as “someone who has veered from the world of appropriate behavior.” Klara drowns in the lake. The voice of Visitation seems at least partially inhabited by Klara’s spirit -- since its skittery attention span and dream-like comprehension describes someone who behaves unconventionally.
Wurrach’s property is sold off in three parcels. An architect on Albert Speer’s staff builds a house for his wife and decorates it with fanciful features. A Jewish cloth manufacturer and his family live on the adjacent plot. When they flee in the late 1930s, the architect takes ownership of their boathouse. But he, too, must flee – from the advancing Russians in 1945. Later, he returns only to be evicted when the Stasi accuse him of illegally obtaining western-made building supplies. In the end, the architect’s house is reclaimed by refugees returning from Siberia – and then sold off by real estate agents. There is one constant character through all this change – a taciturn gardener who lives on and maintains the property.
Erpenbeck threads Visitation with the micro-lives of many characters. The chapters are comprised of block paragraphs, each a complete entity, like prose poems, sometimes quite lyrical, other times keenly observant. There is no dialogue, no mounting tension. Instead, the entire narrative expresses a single, controlled anxiety – as if Klara, brilliant in her own disordered way, were attempting to come to terms with a vast but excruciatingly slow unfolding of history. This is a Germany, says an East German writer who lives for a time on the property, that “had changed irrevocably into something disembodied, the lost spirit with which people neither knew nor were forced to imagine all these horrific things.” Yet although Visitation is governed by the thrust of events, it gathers its emotive power by having the characters suffer from the quality of experience itself. The restrained narrative voice draws extraordinary situations (and ordinary moments surrounded by the ominous) into a chilling familiarity.
In one chapter, the narrator describes the final hours of Doris, a grandchild of the Jewish man who owned the lakeshore house. Taken by boxcar with 120 others, she arrives at a camp:
“For two minutes, a pale, partly cloudy sky arches above her just the way it would look down by the lake right before it rained, for two minutes she inhales the smell of pine trees that she knows so well, but she cannot see the pine trees themselves because of the high fence. Has she really come home? For two minutes she can feel the sand beneath her shoes along with a few bits of flint and pebbles made of quartz or granite, before she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot.”
Clearly, Erpenbeck has selected a haunting but not a dispassionate narrative voice. But there will be no psychologizing, no moralizing summations, no cinematic clashes of types. It takes a huge talent like Erpenbeck to make the reader care so deeply about characters we meet in passing, in brief episodes. This is largely achieved by highly selective intrusions into their lives and thinking. The death of Doris is preceded by a dozen pages in which she hides alone in a closet in a Polish ghetto – a most moving and claustrophobic sequence.
In the following passage, the thoughts of a young Russian officer unspool. He and his men have requisitioned the architect’s house. He thinks about German women:
“In his homeland he had never seen women offering themselves openly on the street or in their apartments like here in Germany, nor had he seen indecent pictures or magazines. In a German photography studio two or three towns back, its display windows shattered and its walls falling in, a creased picture had caught his eye while his men were plundering the shop, this picture lay on the floor and in it he had seen a naked woman threatening another naked woman with a whip … To watch a girl undo her braid while bathing and then see the hair tumble down about her shoulders would have been enough, back home, to fall in love, but these women with whips in their hands he associated with the photo studio itself that had been bombed into rubble and then plundered, as though these woman were standing upon layer after layer of things that had been trampled, torn up and worn out, and were whipping one another to set everything ablaze with this last malicious pleasure and burn it down. His men had taken this picture and many others like it and were now carrying them around in their uniform jackets, face to face with the photographs of their wives and children … A dirty past that until then had been unknown to these Soviet men was catching up with them and dragging them deeper into this foreign land.”
In between these stories, the narrator then turns back to speak about the gardener – his daily routines, his efforts to preserve the seasonal life of the land at lakeside. These paragraphs, catalogs of his duties, are poignant – they center the reader, calm the pulse, bring the eye back to enduring beauty and the mind to the idea of responsibility. But Erpenbeck won’t allow us to get too misty-eyed about the gardener – he grows old and the property falls into disuse.
Born in East Germany in 1967, Jenny Erpenbeck made a remarkable debut in 1999 with her novel The Old Child. This was followed by The Book of Words. In Visitation, a man whose boyhood was spent by the lake remembers something seen “that it would have been better for them not to see … The seeing from that day still persists.” Visitation ultimately is about how to see and to organize what we see into compassionate understanding without giving in to western culture’s sentimental historical clichés.
[Published September 30, 2010. 192 pages, $14.95 paperback original.]