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Historical tale

May 11, 2011

Jenny Erpenbeck, 44, is one of Germany's highly touted contemporary writers, but she started as a theater director. Perhaps that's why the depiction of Germany's past in her novel 'Visitation' reads a bit staged.

An open book
DW looks at German books newly available in English translationImage: Andrzej Tokarski-fotolia

The history of a country is reflected in the history of its land, specifically in who came to own which pieces of real estate when and how. That's the premise behind Jenny Erpenbeck's short, experimental novel "Visitation." The setting - and star, if you will, is a pretty bit of waterfront property on a lake near Berlin, and each chapter features a new owner or inhabitant.

Property registries in Germany - dry as they might be to read - indeed contain countless extreme stories. More than once in the 20th century, the state dispossessed people declared to be undesirables. In "Visitation," the property in question seems to be haunted by past tragedies and injustices.

The story begins around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The land belongs to the village mayor who intends to bequeath it to his youngest daughter, Klara. But Klara goes insane, forcing a change of plans:

Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara's Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt an der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben…and the third third…to an architect from Berlin who discovered this sloping shoreline with its trees and bushes while out for a steamboat ride and wishes to build a summer cottage there for himself and his fiancé.

This matter-of-fact passage is typical of Erpenbeck's style. It also sets the stage for the entire rest of the novel, in which property's dark past haunts each of its future owners.

The inheritance of cruelty

Jenny Erpenbeck
Erpenbeck has won a number of German literary prizesImage: Eichborn Verlag

The cloth manufacturer, for instance, sees the property as a way of putting down roots and signs it over to his son as a kind of premature inheritance. But the family is Jewish, and with the rise of the Third Reich, it becomes a perilous tie that binds.

The son flees, and the land is sold off at a bargain price.

The proceeds from the sale, which the parents, Arthur and Hermine, are to use to pay for their passage, which Ludwig is pleading with them to do as quickly as possible, must be transferred to a frozen bank account until their passports are ready. At approximately the same time, they are forbidden to set foot in public parks.

The cloth manufacturer and his wife are later murdered in the Holocaust.

The land brings no luck, either, to the architect and his wife, who is raped by a Russian soldier in the last days of World War II. An idyllic country getaway spot becomes an intolerable reminder of that violation, and she, too, flees.

From her escape to the West until the end of her life, she will always keep everything one might urgently need in her purse, things such as paper clips, rubber bands, stamps, scraps of paper to write on and pencils. And in her testament she will leave the property beside the lake…that house that in purely legalistic terms still belongs to her even though it is located in a country she may no longer set foot in without risking arrest…to her nieces and the wives of her nephews. But not to any man.

As these passages show, Erpenbeck has done a serious amount of research into things like the Nazi disappropriation of Jewish assets and property ownership in East Germany, and she resolutely avoids sentimentalizing her characters.

But whether her effort ultimately pays off is another question.

An experiment in distance

Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation
Visitation is Erpenbeck's fourth work of narrative fictionImage: Granta Books

This is the sort of book where the author doesn't want you to empathize with any of figures. "Visitation" is about human nature, not about specific human beings, and in Erpenbeck's vision, human nature consists of recurring acts of thoughtlessness, even cruelty.

That's not a criticism. Telling the history of a piece of property is a clever frame allowing Erpenbeck to depict how people's need to own things programs their behavior. In their desire to make a beautiful stretch of land their own, the characters in the novel contribute to the inhumane treatment of their fellow human beings - only to become themselves victims of selfishness and cruelty later in time.

Yet, however realistic Erpenbeck's bleakly materialistic view of human nature may be, the individual plot lines she has come up with feel artificial and staged. A patriarchal town mayor, a host of callous Nazis, a family of pitiable Jewish victims, brutal Soviet troops occupying Germany - these are all stock, clichéd figures.

Thus, while the historical details may be authentic, "Visitation" remains a collection of two-dimensional morality plays. The chapters unfold exactly as we expect; there is no sense of anything significant changing as time marches on. Nor are there any ironic twists of fate or accidents. History is as static as a landscape painting of the plot of earth that occupies the center of the novel.

"Visitation" is an interesting experiment in narrative distance that tries to illustrate trans-historical issues in history and human nature for its readers. It's a shame, then, that Erpenbeck's obsession with the big picture does not allow us to see the trees for the forest.

Author: Jefferson Chase

Editor: Kate Bowen

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