Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation first came to my attention with a positive review from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor at theMookseandtheGripes when this translation was released last summer — more than a quarter of Trevor’s reviews are of translated fiction and when he likes one I pay attention.
I have also had positive experiences with translations of contemporary German works (see my review of Christoph Hein’s Settlement from last year’s IMPAC shortlist). So when Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life gave this four stars I paid even more attention — Lizzy knows her German literature and a recommendation from her is definitely worth notice.
Both those evaluations have since been confirmed with Visitation being included on every 2011 translation prize longlist that I have seen. I thought I would sneak my thoughts in before the shortlists for those prizes come out.
I also have to admit that a feature of every review of this novel that I have seen (and which I am about to repeat) had a lot of influence. Visitation centres not on characters, but a summer house built on a property just outside Berlin in the early 1930s and what happens to that property over the rest of the century. If that reminds you of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (based on the real story of the Villa Tugendhat and my choice for the 2009 Booker Prize), then you are hearing the same echoes that those reviewers and I did.
Erpenbeck actually goes back much further than the 1930s to set her story. A prologue explores the geological history of the area and the glacial action that created the lake which is a feature of the property. The opening chapter (The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters) is a fable-like story that sets the ownership of the land which is in place when the actual novel opens:
Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara’s Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt en der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben, who enters his son’s name in the contract of sale in order to arrange for his inheritance, and finally Wurrach sells the third third, the part where the big oak tree stands, 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 fiancee.
While the author follows the story of all three of those parcels of land, it is the architect and the cottage he builds that will form the central structural theme of the novel. The reader is introduced to the conflict-driven world of the novel’s characters — and the property — when she first brings the architect into the book:
How bitter it is that he is having to bury everything. The porcelain from Meissen, his pewter pitchers and the silver. As if it were wartime. He himself doesn’t know whether he is burying something or simply laying in provisions for his return. He doesn’t even know if there’s any real difference between the two. In general he knows far less now than he used to. Just before the Russians marched in, his wife had packed up these very plates, these tankards and this silverware in crates and lowered everything into the water on the shoal of the Nackliger which she knew from swimming. That was the place in the middle of the lake that was so shallow when she was swimming far from shore in summer her feet would suddenly get tangled in the water plants and then she would start laughing and pretend to be drowning.
We soon discover that the architect is about to flee East Germany (a dangerous indiscretion has been discovered) and head to the West — and Erpenbeck has completed erecting the superstructure of her story in the first 30 pages. An idyllic property is subdivided and a beautiful cottage is built pre-War; Nazism, Russian invasion and a brutal East German republic are all to come. While the three properties will continue to change as slowly as they have over time, each change of human power will dramatically effect those who own it at the time; and somehow the original architect of the summer house will always remain a participant.
There is another human theme that is as strong as the story of the architect. The cloth manufacturer from Guben who bought one of the parcels was Jewish. We meet the family through the eyes of their 12-year-old daughter Doris who is introduced hidden in a closet of the cottage just days before her death during the war (the protectors who hid her have fled):
As the girl sits there in her dark chamber and from time to time tries to straighten her head against the ceiling of her hiding place, as she opens her eyes wide but nevertheless cannot even see the walls of her chamber, as the darkness is so great that the girl cannot even recognize where her body stops, her head is visited by memories of the days on which her entire field of vision was overflowing with colors. Clouds, sky and leaves, the leaves of oak trees, leaves of the willow hanging down like hair, black dirt between her toes, dry pine needles and grass, pine cones, scaly bark, clouds, sky and leaves, sand, dirt, water and the boards of the dock, clouds, sky and gleaming water in which the sun is reflected, shady water beneath the dock, she can see it through the cracks when she lies on her belly to dry off after a swim. After the departure of her uncle, her grandfather continued to take her sailing for another two summers. Surely her grandfather’s boat is still in the village shipyard. Four years in winter quarters.
The cottage and the lake are not the only continuing, slowly-evolving elements of the novel — they are personified by a gardener who is present throughout the ever-changing political landscape (and in alternating chapters in the novel) and whose work, for the most part, doesn’t change:
In the spring he puts in a flowerbed along the side of the house that faces the road, filling it at the householder’s request with poppies, peonies and yellow coneflowers, with a big angel’s trumpet in the middle. For the border, he just pokes a few box twigs into the earth all around the flowers, they’ll put down roots and grow. In summer he sets out sprinklers on both lawns, twice each day they will bow to one side and then the other for half an hour, once early in the morning and once at dusk, meanwhile he waters the flowerbed, roses and shrubs.
I have included more and longer quotes in this review than I usually do because the flat, almost hypnotic, tone of the author’s prose is what distinguishes this novel (both Trevor’s and Lizzy’s reviews will give you a much better idea of the “story” than this review does). Erpenbeck and Mawer may use similar elements to establish a similar story, but they tell it in very different ways. The strength of Visitation is the way that Erpenbeck continually builds a tension between the slowly evolving (the lake and cottage) and the momentous, life-threatening changes in the human world surrounding them — both have their impact on the characters of the story. The introspective way that the characters of the novel experience those two aspects of change, rather than the drama and upheaval that produce them, is the beauty of the novel.
That strategy of story-telling has its risks and probably will not appeal to some — but it certainly worked for me. Erpenbeck deserves all the praise that she is getting for this ambitious piece of writing.