Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

An obvious quotation from James Fenton

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

What the book contains

The book contains a Prologue and an Epilogue and in between these 22 short chapters named after the chief character/s of that chapter.  Alternating chapters are devoted to the Gardener, so we get (P)GXGX…GX(E).  The Prologue describes the geological processes by which the lake was formed upon which the house that is the centre of the book stands, while the Epilogue decribes the demolition of the house.

The story of the book

We start off near a lake in Brandenburg, not so far from Berlin.  The old mayor, whose ancestors have been the local mayors since 1650, has four daughters: Grete, Hedwig, Emma and Klara (their mother died in childbirth).  None of them succeeds in getting married.  The old mayor sells off Klara’s Wood (meant to be her inheritance) in three parts:  one to a coffee and tea importer, one to a cloth manufacturer, and one to an architect from Berlin.  This is illustrated in Figure 1 below.

FIGURE 1:  THE MAYOR AND HIS POSSESSIONS

Next the architect buys the Jewish cloth manufacturer’s portion for a full half of the full market value when the latter tries to flee the Nazis.

FIGURE 2:  THE JEWISH CLOTH MANUFACTURER (ARTHUR) AND HIS FAMILY

After the Jews within reach have been murdered and East Germany has come into being, the architect and his wife (they never intended to have any children, though he did have a son by his first marriage) find themselves constrained to leave for the West, and the property passes to a husband and wife pair of writers, who spent the war in the Soviet Union and who put their son in a children’s home because it seems the appropriate thing to do.

They do succeed in having a family, with ramifications as shown in Figure 3 below.

FIGURE 3:  THE WRITERS AND THEIR FAMILY

We also have another married couple living on the property, a pair of keen sailors where the husband, a factory worker, tried to escape to the West as a young man by swimming.  At the end of the book, the granddaughter is hiding in the concealed closet from estate agents and potential purchasers the same way that the architect’s wife hid there from the Russians decades earlier.

Why I liked this book

I was very impressed by Erpenbeck’s ability to know what to leave out, especially when compared to The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which attempts to do the same kind of things but insists on making everything explicit and underlining it as well–or so it seemed to me, and the result was that I found the book unreadable.  The idea here is that you have to fill the spaces between the episodes with yourself, not have everything told to you.  In fact you could say that the whole problem is that the characters cannot fill the spaces between them with love or any feeling (maybe this doesn’t apply to the Jewish characters), which is why things turn out the way they do.

Some of the individual episodes, such as the Holocaust embodied in Doris shut up in her dark chamber in the cleared Warsaw ghetto or the architect’s wife laughing and telling jokes and boiling crabs for twenty years so that she doesn’t know which year is which, but While she was spending her whole life laughing, her blonde hair imperceptibly turned into white hair,–or the evocation of a Russian village in the backstory of the Red Army officer–are absolutely lovely and exemplary in themselves.  As is the defamiliarisation, so that the Holocaust is Doris in the dark room and the prices her family’s belongings are sold for.

I’m not so sure about the overtly fairy-story type elements, such as the architect’s wife growing fatter throughout the War as though pregnant with disaster.  And I wasn’t too keen on the geological prologue or the demolitionary epilogue either–I’d rather they had been captured within some frame so as to put them on the same level as the rest.  Say if at the beginning a little girl had read the geological passage in an encyclopedia and at the end someone had told her brother about the demolition in schoolboy-pleasing detail.

But what an achievement, to get a whole encyclopedia of German life (and, what is more serious, mentality) in 150 pages (in the translation at least).

About the translation

The translation (by Susan Bernofsky) has been universally hailed by all commentators and they probably all know more about German in general and German translation in particular than I do.  It is certainly the case that the translation normalises the style and makes it more conversational, which is probably a good thing from the point of view of securing a readership.  But this rather blunts the force of some passages, for instance the sheer strangeness of the description of wedding customs at the beginning of the book.

The translation is of course into American English, and as ever I’m not entirely sure about the wholesale replacement of European plant names by American equivalents or pseudo-equivalents.  But my ignorance of gardening is pretty complete…

TABLE OF TRANSLATION AND RELATED ISSUES

Translation Original Comments
P1 saber-toothed cats Säbelzahnkatze Sabre-toothed tigers, surely
P18 cottager…cottier Büdner, Kossäthen Search me!
? Basically it’s a matter of framing the view Im Grunde kommt es ja immer darauf an, den Blick zu lenken. ‘Leading the eye’ rather than ‘framing the view’
P36 Zeiss Ikon, a key meeting the highest safety standards Zeiß Ikon, Sicherheitschüssel security standards’, surely?
P26 pine tar Teerfarbe This turns out to be quite right
P28 fieldstone Feldsteine Quite right again!
P31 coneflowers Waldblumen Maybe…looks like ‘woodland flowers’ though
P35 Why is there Lametta hanging on the tree? Why does Lametta hang on the tree? [in English!] ??
P36 potato beetle Kartoffelkäfer But it’s ‘Colorado beetle’ in English!
P36 a dock einen Steg Surely this is a landing-stage,which is what ‘der Steg’ means? The description a bit later certainly sounds like a landing-stage.
P38 Abraham’s sausage pot Abrahams Wurstkessel But this isn’t an idiom in English..’a twinkle in your father’s eye’??
P57 apiary for twelve colonies Bienenhaus für zwölf Völker This is OK
P77 seed was being sowed Better ‘sown’?
P102 clover press Kleereibe ‘clover huller’–‘clover press’ is for making coffee!
P112 paddleboat Paddelboot ‘canoe’ rather than ‘paddleboat’, which is something different
P116 Giant Mountains Riesengebirge Normally just Riesengebirge in English!
P118 statistics Statik ‘statics, structural engineering’ not ‘statistics’
P113 convenient to shopping Convenient for shopping
P143 milk glass panes Milchglasscheiben But ‘Milchglas’ is just ‘frosted glass’
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