Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Worth Taking a Visit

Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 2010

In a slim, 150 page novel, Jenny Erpenbeck manages to cover a wide expanse of history, geography, and individual experience, all centered around a lakeside home outside of Berlin. It is set, primarily, in the 20th century, so war figures prominently, either lurking in the background or taking center stage.

Visitation follows the lives of twelve people who are connected to the house, the book’s main character. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the twelve people. We first meet the unnamed gardener, who silently carries out the task at hand, whatever it may be:

The gardener digs the holes to a depth of 80 centimeters and then fills them with composted earth so the fruit trees will flourish. He diverts a few pipes from the underground drainage system he had set up on the original property so the young fruit trees will receive additional water. (pg. 45)

It is to the gardener that we return, constantly, between each of the intervening chapters. His story becomes the timeline against which the novel is measured. At first, I found this annoying, but about halfway through I was loving seeing how the seasons and years passed on this plot of land.

The prologue introduces us to the woods and lake via a geological, glacial timeframe, which allows the reader to place the brutal events that follow into a less immediate perspective. Otherwise, the close attention to the intertwined lives chronicled may be overly oppressive.

“The Girl,” a ten page chapter in the middle of the book, is one of the darkest chapters of the book. In it, a terrified child hides in a cupboard as the ghetto is emptied, her building is cleared out, and Nazis now search her apartment.

 “The Red Army Officer” chapter was difficult to read for several reasons. In it, a Russian army (troop? battalion?) takes over the house. The acts described are truly horrific. The men desecrate the occupied houses with excrement, urine, and anything else they can. Erpenbeck manages to put their destruction in context, so as to avoid painting them as monsters:

Only recently, now that they have penetrated deeply into German territory, has the fury of the soldiers reached such a level that they are using the insides of their own bodies to wage way. The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.

[Trigger Warning for discussion of sexual violence].

However, what bothered me the most about this chapter was a scene that took place in the closet of the house. The Red Army officer hears a noise coming from the closet and goes to see what it is. Thus commences the most disturbing, violent sex/rape scene I’ve read in recent memory.

Except it doesn’t actually happen.

But that doesn’t make it less disturbing to read. In fact, in a way, perhaps it’s worse. Is rape being used as a metaphor, as a plot device? That is incredibly disturbing, as well. I’m really conflicted how I feel about this whole chapter. Rape is used as a tool of war, so it’s not that I think it couldn’t be used appropriately and effectively. This just felt wrong, somehow. I keep going back and forth about how I feel about this.

Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, I still thought the Visitation was a great read. It was incredibly well written. I like when a book makes me slow down and read it carefully, and when I’m still thinking about it well after I’ve turned the last page.

Visitation was shortlisted for a 2011 Best Translated Fiction Award.  


Caroline said...

What an interesting and thoughtful review. I haven't managed to read the book yet but I certainly will. Not for German Literature Month but very soon.
I have read a few reviews who mentioned it was too dark for them. As I have not read it yet, I don't know, don't know what to make of the disturbing rape scene either.

MJ said...

Thanks - it is dark, but generally it was very well done. I liked it a lot.