Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello RRP£10.99, 150 pages
Jenny Erpenbeck is the author of two acclaimed novellas, The Old Child and The Book of Words. While retaining their gnomic style, Visitation represents a significant broadening of approach. Her story is set around the real-life Märkisches Meer, a glacial lake south-east of Berlin. Now suburban, the area was still steeped in rural folklore at the end of the 19th century.
Sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, the mayor’s favourite daughter, to whom he has bequeathed some land, drowns herself in the lake. The plot is sold to an architect from the city and the house he builds for his wife is a city dweller’s vision of a rural escape. Yet its very charm puts a curse on all who inhabit it. Too beautiful for the traumatic century of its existence, this unsustainable idyll tempts those who would be wiser to leave to stay, and prevents those who do leave from finding contentment elsewhere.
Only the house and its silent gardener remain constant. Inhabitants come and go – the departees rarely of their own volition. Their fates, unfailingly related, make painful reading. Time drifts past in a dreamlike way – one minute it’s 1892, then three pages later the boxer Max Schmeling has knocked out Joe Louis (1936). The many shifts in perspective are handled with immense skill.
An amiable opportunist, the architect buys his Jewish neighbours’ land “for almost half the market price”, when they are forced to emigrate. He works for both the Nazis and Communists until a rash decision forces him to leave for the west. Next to live in the house are a writer and her husband, loyal Communists who spent the war in the Soviet Union.
Through all these changes, the gardener digs down through the topsoil to plant trees and bushes, saws up fallen branches and stacks them in the woodshed – until, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heirs of past owners claim what is theirs. It is a topic dealt with by Stefan Heym in a wry short story called “Auf Sand Gebaut” (Built on Sand), though Erpenbeck’s treatment is more ambitious.
Though just 150 pages long, Visitation has the epic trajectory of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. This impressive achievement is a deeply engaging panorama of Germany’s troubling 20th-century history.