Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

(c) New Directions BooksA house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing’, muses the Architect of the charming lakeside house on the banks of a Brandenburg lake. In Jenny Erpenbeck’s moving and meditative novel, Visitation, home is where the heart is, so it seems only fitting that the house takes centre stage as the novel’s central character.

In dreams, a house symbolises who we are—physically, spiritually and emotionally. In our waking lives, it offers shelter and security; it also hides secrets and treasures and evokes memories. This house on the hill, with its iron bird railing, coloured windows, hidden closet that smells of peppermint and camphor embodies all these things for the 12 or so occupants who inhabit it from the Weimar Republic to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In this poetic ode to the everyday occupations and preoccupations of the people who inhabit and pass through the humble house, author Erpenbeck is also an architect of sorts. With every new character, she adds another room. While each story is discrete and represents a particular point in German history, the author manages to bind the disparate collection of rooms together using the bricks and mortar of memory, history, love, loss, ownership and inheritance. The result is a structurally sound and highly original novel that is affecting and timeless.

The land that the house sits on is also central to Erpenbeck’s story. In the Epilogue, the author traces its legacy all the way back to the Ice Age, showing its transformation from underwater mountains to undulating hills. We are reminded of this legacy every time someone digs into the blue clay where they find a ‘…layer of sand beneath the bedrock…(that) still displays a wave-like pattern, immortalizing the winds that blew across the water long ago’.

Similarly, every new tenant puts their mark on the environment in their choice of building, the treasure they bury there, the way they shape the garden or subdivide the land.

With its gentle repetitions, the book echoes the rhythmic and reassuring routines of everyday life. As with the external landscape, poignant and painful experiences, such as war, homelessness and loss, punctuate these gentle iterations, leaving permanent scars in the hearts and minds of the house’s occupants.

If you are a fan of character-driven narratives then you may not enjoy Erpenbeck’s rather unconventional approach. In Visitation, the author measures a character’s worth through their effect on the landscape, and to a lesser extent in how they represent a moment in time or a theme. This explains why the rather unlikely character of the Gardener is so central to the novel, despite the fact that he barely speaks and that, unlike the other characters, we are never privy to his internal landscape.

The Gardener is a man of action, rather than words. He is a throwback to our post-industrial ancestors who lived off the land and with the land. Although he works in the service of the house’s various owners and occupants, his true mistress is Mother Nature and the diligence and devotion that he affords her is nurturing and heart warming.

Other characters get short shrift, like the Mayor and his four daughters, whose family owned the land for centuries. They float in on a cloud of folkloric superstition in the second chapter and are quickly cast aside once the Mayor is forced to sell his inheritance.

This is one of only two families that the author names, the other is the Jewish family. A profession or relationship defines all the other inhabitants—the Gardener, The Architect’s Wife, the Subtenants etc.

This distinction is very effective when it comes to the Jewish family. Erpenbeck continually reinforces their identity and their relationships within the family—‘Hermine and Arthur, his parents. He himself, Ludwig, the firstborn. His sister Elisabeth, married to Ernst. Their daughter, his niece, Doris. Then his wife Anna. And now the children: Elliot and baby Elisabeth, named for his own sister’.

This reinforcement makes it all the more meaningful when most of them are executed in the labour camps, effectively erasing their identities. ‘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…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’.

Erpenbeck weaves in references from the Nazi era throughout many of the chapters with the talent of a great seamstress using invisible stitches. The author makes its presence incidental, rather than pivotal most of the time. Its infiltration is organic rather than extremist. She does not play with our emotions or accuse or judge, unless it is through the eyes of one of her characters, such as the Writer. This allows the reader to see the subtlety of how the movement infiltrated the mainstream before the ethnic cleansing began in earnest.

The author’s references to time are equally subtle, forcing the reader to pay close attention to any clues that help situate the story in a particular period. In the second chapter, this comes in the form of folklore around weddings and a passing reference to the year 1892. In other chapters, the clues are historical, referencing the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Russian invasion that signalled the end of the Second World War in the chapter about the Architect’s Wife.

The author is even-handed in her depiction of the fraught encounter between the woman who dreamed of becoming a tightrope walker and the Red Army Officer. She leaves it to her characters to recount their take on their meeting in hidden closet upstairs. It is ultimately up to the reader to decide whose account to believe. Erpenbeck merely highlights that everyone is a slave to war.

She cleverly uses the Officer’s discovery of the hidden closet to comment on Germany’s propensity for being secretive. ‘Maybe the Germans used to hide too much, it occurs to him, now that he has happened upon this secret closet, they even hid the bedclothes in the wall and put wooden gratings to hide the radiators.’

This, along with the constant references to the unearthing of buried treasure that the Architect and his wife leave behind when they are forced to flee, go to the heart of a history of hidden shame and other recurring themes in the book—fleeing from a home, homelessness and longing to feel at home.

Although unconventionally structured, the book is fairly easy to follow until the final chapters when it becomes harder to place the characters in time and in relationship with each other. That aside, the book speaks to the heart, not only the German experience, but of the human desire to put down roots, to belong and to find a place that is timeless and ageless where you can house all your happy memories.

The Book

Erpenbeck, Jenny: Visitation /transl. by Susan Bernofsky: New Directions, 2010 - 192 p. ISBN 978-0-8112-1835-1 Original title: Heimsuchung (German)

Andrea Cally is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor who has written for the Age, the Big Issue and the Weekly Review, among others.

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