Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, trans. Susan Bernofsky, 2010

Before I begin, my first caveat is that I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation in English, and I know from its German title Heimsuchung that language is important. I suspect, therefore, that I have not read the same book that Erpenbeck wrote. My second caveat, one that explains my enthusiasm, is that Visitation is not just about Germany, it is about that aspect of Germany that has been my preoccupation for the past twenty years: a twentieth century marked by violent ruptures, inconsistent political systems and cultural transformations that attempted to wipe away everything they replaced, but that never quite succeeded in doing so. 

As Germany passes from one political regime and one historical moment to the next, a piece of land by a lake in East Germany, not far from Berlin, passes from one generation, one owner to the next. A house is built, as is a dock, and a bathing house, another house next door, an apiary, and various other spaces come and go. Similarly, the boundaries of the land continue to be redrawn as the title is passed on, seized, bought and sold. An architect whose moral undoing, and for another generation, whose claim to success was that he worked with Albert Speer on the Germania project; he abandons the house for West Berlin once the Communist Regime is in place. Next door a Jewish family is carted off to the ghetto before being gassed sometime in the late 1930s. Their granddaughter hides in a closet in the ghetto, their son, the granddaughter’s uncle emigrates to South Africa with his family. And so the house is taken over by a young Red Army officer who rapes the wife of the architect when he discovers her, but never sees her, hiding in a secret closet, living, eating, defecating in the secret closet. And when he leaves, the house is ownerless, until the next householders arrive “having leased the property from the municipality: A writer couple from Berlin.” And so on until the house is demolished at the end of this century of turmoil.

As German history moves forward, and social standing, meaning and identity illogically erode with the introduction of each new political system, all of the inhabitants of the house are threaded together, not only by the house as the place they inhabit, but more vividly by their search for a home. Each of the owners, whether legitimate or illegitimate are looking not only for a place to be home, but for a homeland in a country where the same was distorted, violated and finally ripped out from underneath them. In a conversation created on the page, the writer who moves into the house sometime in the 1950s having been exiled in Moscow, and having lost her husband on a platform when he boarded a different train somewhere in all that movement, carries the message of what it is to search for a home.

“I just want to go home, just home, she’d often thought in those days, and from the Urals had directed her machine gun fire at her homeland, word after word. But now that no one country was to be her homeland any longer but rather mankind in general, doubt continued to manifest itself in her as homesickness.” (p. 89)

Ultimately, it is the house that becomes the home, the character that we identify with, that we grow to know, in which we find security, and feel at home in, as do those characters with whom we take up residence as the novel progresses. In the final pages, before the land is bought and the house we have settled in over 150 pages and the narrative's 100 years will be demolished, we are in it, together with the now adult daughter of a young couple who were permitted to spend their summers in the house on the condition they mowed the lawn. We, together with her, are hidden in the secret cupboard as the investors and speculators look suspiciously for secrets of a different kind: the property is expensive so they must be sure of its shortcomings.

We smell and know the freshness of the summer air as it fills the bedroom, coloured by the stained glass windows. We know what the would be buyers do not: the creaks in the wooden floor, the very faint clinking sound of the milk-glass panes inset in the door, the shutters with the crank concealed inside the wall to allow access to the secret cupboard, the smell of the cats and the martens. And we know of the histories and memories buried, sometimes literally, in the garden that surrounds the house. The one character who remains on the land throughout the book is the gardener, quietly tending the land, the gardens, looking after the house when it is empty of residents. Like the other characters, he never speaks, but he is given a voice through his consistency, his reliability, his silence. When the gardener disappears one day, it is as though there is no longer a need for a refuge. Or perhaps there is no longer an answer to the question of what it means to be home, because there is no such thing as home. And so, the gardener and all traces of his aged existence on this land vanished, the speculator is invited to calculatedly, and in all ignorance of the secrets, the turmoil, the violence and the death to which the house has been a witness, demolish it. But when the land is cleared and only a dirt pit remains where the house once was, we are left with a knowledge the speculators can’t reckon with: that as history transforms from one era to the next, power and favor are always revealed to be temporary. Visitation and twentieth century Germany can confirm that there’s no guarantee that what is morally triumphed today will not be adjudged reprehensible tomorrow.

As if the violence and the guilt, the scars and haunting memories of twentieth-century Germany were not enough to disturb the reader, Erpenbeck magnifies the impact to create a powerful and disturbing novel through the use of a dry, apparently objective third person voice. The narration is detached, factual almost, and when it reaches its most heinous visions, the maintenance of its rhythms, and its unrelenting objectivity add to the monstrousness of what it sees. 

“Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, the frozen bank accounts dissolved and their household goods auctioned off.” (p.44)

Or, as the young Berlin girl and her childhood friend watch from their secret hideout in the woodshed while a 12 year old girl is raped, their silent powerlessness is reinforced by an economy and precision of language:

“First it had been too soon to burst out of hiding, and then it was too late, and the dividing line between too early and too late was so sharp that it couldn’t even have been called a no man’s land. Behind the wooden wall … it was dark and cramped, and if they had so much as shifted position, everything would have collapsed.” (p.129)

Indeed, where the book becomes most powerful is in its shift from the devastation of Germany’s checkered history to that same history’s emotional and psychological disfigurement of the individual inhabitants of the land. And the extent of their hope, despair, their loves and tragedies are written in the repetitions, the rhythms and the otherwise plaintive language of Erpenbeck’s prose. 

About once every couple of years, I come across the book that gives me the reason to keep reading. Visitation is one such book

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