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Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (review)
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Jenny Erpenbeck belongs to a generation of authors with a uniquely dual perspective. Born in the German Democratic Republic in 1967, Erpenbeck grew to early adulthood shaped by East German culture, yet she made her literary debut in a reunified Germany ten years after the name and political identity of her home had shifted beneath her feet. Erpenbeck’s fifth literary work, the novel Heimsuchung, focuses on how political upheavals unsettle human lives while our notions of “home” nonetheless endure. Published in 2008, Heimsuchung has now been masterfully translated by Susan Bernofsky.

The main character of Visitation is not a person but a piece of wooded land near a Brandenburg lake. The prologue to the novel begins twenty-four thousand years ago when a glacier commenced the millennia-long process of carving out the lake. Subsequent chapters span about one hundred years and depict the house eventually built on this piece of land and the sequence of people who live there. With its lens trained on this one spot, the novel shows the changes wrought by time and politics from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century.

The novel’s third-person narrator recounts the fates of characters in a dispassionate, almost deadpan tone, yet Erpenbeck also imbues the hard facts of history with mystical elements that owe a large debt to German Romanticism. Every other chapter is devoted to The Gardener, a taciturn man of unknown origins who tends the land with such staunch dedication as to nearly embody the land itself. Readers first glimpse him as he helps local farmers to graft fruit trees in a scene strongly reminiscent of the beginning of Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; variously translated as Elective Affinities and Kindred by Choice). While Erpenbeck depicts both natural and political processes, she also highlights the abiding power of stories, literary tradition, folklore, and fabulation. The chapter tracing the nineteenth-century owners of the land, “The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters,” lists more than fifty superstitions—all carefully observed—about the rites of marriage and burial. The wealthy farmer’s youngest daughter, Klara, briefly finds love through circumstances that recall Goethe’s well-known ballad “Der Fischer” (1779; “The Fisherman,” 1801), yet rather than a fisherman being drawn into the depths by a water nymph, Klara pulls a fisherman out of the water. She goes mad after their encounter, develops a penchant for hiding in closets, and repeatedly returns to the lake hoping for her lover’s reappearance. Across subsequent generations, the women who live on the land known as Klara’s Wood continue to share watery destinies. For example, a Jewish girl named Doris, who spent happy summers at the lake, is captured by the Nazis because she could not control her bladder while hiding in a closet and the urine trickled beneath the door where it formed “a little lake on the kitchen floor” (p. 66).

The recurrent permutations of Klara’s story over the span of a century, as well as the recurrent motifs from German Romanticism, lend an uncanny psychological dimension to historical events. One chapter, entitled “The Subtenants,” which reflects back on a man’s attempted escape from East Germany, contains an extended allusion to Ludwig Tieck’s tale of ineluctable entrapment, Der blonde Eckbert (1797; Fair-Haired Eckbert, 1827). The wife of this coldhearted man learns that her childhood was not the “fairytale” she had always believed it to be, that her father “was not real,” and that she actually hails from the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains). Somewhat disappointingly, Bernofsky adds a specific geographical location here—“the Giant Mountains on the border of Bohemia”—thereby undercutting the make-believe quality of this section (p. 116).

Of course no reader will agree with every one of the myriad decisions required to craft a translation, and this reader found very few occasions to quibble with Bernofsky’s choices. I read the original and the translation side by side and had cause, on every page, to marvel at Bernofsky’s talent and her ingenious solutions to the challenges posed by the novel. For example, while the line “Warte nur, balde” is recognizable to German readers as a quote from Goethe...

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