VISITATION by Jenny Erpenbeck

Book Quote:

“Colourful is only that what she can still remember, surrounded by darkness of which she is at the core, her head […] carries colourful memories, memories of somebody, who she was. Probably was. Who was she? Whose head was her head? Who owns the memories?””

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe В (MAY 2, 2011)

The “Girl,” who ponders these questions, is one of the protagonists in Jenny Erpenbeck’s innovative and powerful novel Visitation. Memories of innocent excitement and happiness of youth, of arriving, settling down, and then having to leave again and of families and people loved and lost form the core of the story. People and events are centred around a lake-side summer house surrounded by expansive woods and gardens in the region just east of Germany’s capital, Berlin, affording it the role as the central character and integrating force of the narrative. Using her zooming lens, the author condenses many decades of twentieth century German history into time-specific, intricate and intimate glimpses into the lives of twelve different residents and their families living on the property. While the owners build and add to the house, change it and its grounds over time, leaving visible marks and impressions, they are in turn impacted by the environment and the historical events occurring beyond it.

Starting out more like a fairy-tale, the novel gains intensity as it progresses: the portraits become more intense, reaching deeper into the background of the individuals, also relating their actions to specific historical time periods of the last decades: from the Weimar Republic, through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, War and Soviet occupation, to Socialist East Germany and Fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond. The Girl’s haunting account far away, having had to flee her home and Germany, stands out as one of the most heart-wrenching chapters. In others, the reader senses underlying tense emotions, despite the deceptively detached, often sparse language, that refers to most protagonists only as the Architect, the Writer, the Visitor, etc. or the Gardener. However, despite the apparent indistinctness, the individuals portrayed are engagingly realistic and anything but bland generalizations. Events beyond the calm of the summer house are alluded to, hints that may be easier to detect for the German reader. The narrator’s language and style changes slightly as the story moves from one voice to the next. Erpenbeck often uses rhythmic prose, sometimes staccato sentences, repetitions, or lyrical prose to reflect her protagonists’ moods and characteristics. While the different individuals pass through the house as transient residents – some return later, allowing for intergenerational connections – only the “Gardener,” more a symbol than a person, remains as a constant, his chapters alternating with the others.

The original title Heimsuchung has several meanings in German, one of which is “Visitation.” This has an ominous or threatening undertone and often refers to ghosts or disease. An additional meaning contained in the term is “searching for home.” Both connotations are beautifully captured in stories. For example, the Authoress looks back on a long life, that included fleeing the home of her youth all the way to Moscow and the Urals, and, even while “going home” now to the house and the lake, she is still searching for the “home” that she can emotionally return to. On the other hand, the overconfident Architect, a former Albert Speer collaborator, is on the run, the ghosts of the past having caught up with him: he is locking up, hiding the valuables, leaving the key for the next occupant of the house…

Award-winning Jenny Erpenbeck is a representative of the younger generation of German authors (born in 1967). Many like her were born and raised in then East Germany. Their background enables them to take a different perspective on the past. Inspired by and based on her family’s summer house, the author sensitively mixes her own memories and those of people she knew with the wide-ranging fictional reality of her novel. While recent novels like Simon Mawer‘s The Glass Room come to mind, in that comparable techniques were used to build the novels, Erpenbeck’s voice is fresh and independent and very convincing. Visitation, published in German in 2008 and now available in the highly praised translation by Susan Bernofksy, was recently chosen by author Nicole Krauss as one her favorite books of the year.

(Having read the novel in its original, all translations in this review are mine.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: New Directions; First Edition edition (September 30, 2010)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jenny Erpenbeck
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: The Vanishing of KatharinaLinden by Helen Grant

Another house that inspires an historical story:

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve


May 2, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , ,  В· Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Facing History, Germany, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.