By Jenny Erpenbeck
History happens to people, but it leaves its mark most of all on places — such appears to be the view of German novelist, Jenny Erpenbeck. Her unsettling, quirky new novel offers a study of East Germany from the perspective of a lakeside house.
The property, a sprawling, gothic maze, bears witness to the horrors — and triumphs — of a century. Unsurprisingly, it is touched by the Holocaust and the repression of the Soviet era, but it also quietly heeds events of smaller significance; falling in love, a friendship formed over a summer.
Visitation is not one story but a dozen, a series of vignettes in a common setting, musing on life and death and how the impact of experiences changes over time. Translated from the original German by Susan Bernofsky, the writing is beautiful, without so much as a superfluous word. Erpenbeck (perhaps with Bernofsky’s assistance) has the uncanny knack of coining phrases that, though her invention, sound not only apt but familiar: a grandmother is not alive, but rather, “still on her deathbed”; a child convulsed with giggles is “stuck in her laughter”.
Yet for all her lovingly crafted language, portraying the house in convincing and intriguing detail, Erpenbeck gives only fleeting portraits of her characters, identifying them as The Architect,The Illegitimate Owner etc. Pertinent though this anonymity may be to the book’s wider theme, for this reader it was frustrating. As each chapter ended, I was left wanting more from the individual narrator, not to switch focus to the next “visitor”.
History is most resonant when related to individuals but Erpenbeck chooses not to explore that human connection in depth and her skilful, stylish book is less engaging as a result.