Book Review: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck. Of Place and Leavings.

I think there is an emotion tied to place called leaving. It’s one that has imprinted on my adult life: it’s gentle and nostalgic, bearing depths of signified meaning that change the everyday and the commonplace, with a touch of grief allowing the comfort in an ever-repeating pattern of ceremony that we atheists otherwise don’t tend to allow ourselves.

 [Me, below …]

erpenbeck-cover

Published 2008 | Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.

Visitation is a small book with a lot of presence. Almost a novelette – you can read it in a weekend – I picked it up exclusively because I needed a short read after the long slog through Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Although shorter does not mean lighter in content: anything but.

Visitation is a concept novel, done beautifully. The concept was to take a single patch of land, with a lake and a house, in the rural suburbs of Berlin, and show it from its geological formation in the ice age, glaciers gouging out the lake and the landscape, jumping briefly through some formation pre-twentieth century characters, then concentrating on the period of the early 1930s through World War II, then arrival of the Soviets and building of the Berlin Wall – in relation to which the property is unfortunately on the wrong side – and the story ending when the Wall is torn down.

It was unusual for me to like a novel like this because I’m a character driven reader: I need to care about complex characters. Yet I don’t think a single character is named by Erpenbeck; they are known by their occupations or circumstance: The Architect; The Visitor; The Subtenants; The Red Soldier, The Illegitimate Owner, with all characters transient, other than The Gardener who weaves through the narrative, holding it together.

What Erpenbeck managed to do around her concept was skilfully draw characters in just enough exquisite detail to catch the reader in their plight as they take possession of the property, then leave again, while at the same time hammering home an over-arching political message, and leading us often down byways searching out the meaning in our small, fleeting existences, so important to us in the now of living, yet insignificant through the wash of time.

History, geology and place are impersonal. There’s no resident evil in this patch of land as it changes from hand to hand, but there’s evil aplenty that happens to the people passing through their temporary ownership, perpetrated by the autocratic state and its demand individuals be sacrificed to its program/pogrom of common good: the Jewish family owners who lost their lives in the holocaust (in a gut-wrenching single paragraph of writing I choose not to reproduce here – read the book); then the German family who acquired the land from that family at half price as they were so desperate to get out of Germany (alas, too late); through the euphoric start of the war when German confidence was at its height, but which ends badly for that family as they face the wrath of the Red Army raping and pillaging its way through to sack Berlin; on under the Soviets where property ownership is expunged, the ever fearful occupiers from this point in time living on the whim of Communist allocation and under mass surveillance of the Stasi; in the interim period leading to that, before the Berlin Wall goes up, the landowners escaping to the West and losing everything; and finally, the last Illegitimate Owner keeping the broken property swept clean until descendants of the dispossessed owners regain title after the Wall is fallen.

To reiterate my opening, hand on heart, I did not pick this novel for that political theme, albeit fitting me like the glove ever-present in my pocket I use to smack people around their chops with – which is by way of an almost-apology. I had finished my four month read of A Little Life, and flitting through Twitter I chanced on a tweet linking to ‘20 short novels everyone should read’ and picked this one at random because I could not remember – without my 18 year long reading log – what the last German novel I ever read would’ve been (a Gunter Grass I suspect [checked: I read Grass’s Dog Years over April 2008]). That aside, this is a powerful portrayal of how the trust we constantly place in the state, granting it all-knowing power, ends always in betrayal. Looking at US politics, currently, we never learn this lesson. The cult of redistribution have handed the Western State untrammelled power to tax and surveil, thinking they’ll achieve what the Soviets couldn’t, a nirvana of equality, but, again, again, again, it’s becoming evident that is not such a good idea, all this God-like Big Brother State power, when there’s voted in – and there always will be – a megalomaniacal, probably sociopathic, narcissist. I would say minarchy is looking pretty good, however, everyone in my Twitter timeline simply thinks the problem is the wrong tyrant was voted in, so I won’t taunt you further. My point being only that I picked this novel up by serendipity – and such a happy one because the writing, and the translation, thereby, was exceptional. For example, the Architect’s flight and the awareness of how place exists in time, and how time is unforgiving:

 His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height width and depth … but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home. We won’t be doing any arresting over the weekend, the official said and let him go, meaning that he wasn’t going to be killed, he was just supposed to leave … in two hours he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn that will bring him to West Berlin. Five years at least, the official said, for the ton of screws he bought with his own money in the West to be used in the East [on] a building for the state that is now driving him out. He knows much less than he used to.

 A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing … and now he had to consider himself lucky he was escaping with his life, suffer his third skin to be stripped from him and fleeing insides glisteningly exposed, to the safety of the West.

And the foolishness of the Soviet enterprise:

If this bit of land, the house and the lake had not signified homeland to him, nothing would have kept him in the Eastern Zone. Now his home had become a trap. At the end of the war he had haggled and drunk with the Russians … to keep the machines from being removed from his cabinetry workshop, he had salvaged his architecture office, his business, even during the first wave of expropriations … but now, six years after the end of the war, the Communists were making a grab for his business after all … Like children with an animal whose nature they are unable to comprehend they were now ripping the head off this toy and would be surprised to see the thing stop twitching thereafter.

The Subtenant returning us to the theme of remorseless time, and how to find whatever meaning there is in our transience (or impossibility of):

… it strikes him as strange that, independent of what is happening, one day is always followed by another, and to this day he doesn’t know what it actually is that is continuing. Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different from what we’re hoping for – something that transcends everything that’s ever happened – since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognises it. The house too is still standing there, and he doesn’t know what it is that is still standing.

Which leads me to the personal connection this novel turns on for me, which wasn’t the political theme; something quite different, and along the lines of the more travelled aesthetic English readers are comfortable with in their literature, namely, emotion, to which for this brief space of words and the fleeting time it takes to read them, Erpenbeck intuitively ties to message so well the seams are out of sight below the text. I’m thinking German readers might be different in encompassing politics and philosophy as inseparable to Life and Art as emotion is (pondering Gunter again), so for me this little novel is a little bit epiphanic …

I think there is an emotion tied to place called leaving. It’s one that has imprinted on my adult life: it’s gentle and nostalgic, bearing depths of signified meaning that change the everyday and the commonplace, with a touch of grief allowing the comfort in an ever-repeating pattern of ceremony that we atheists otherwise don’t tend to allow ourselves.

Given the times Erpenbeck has her focus on, the leavings are not gentle (though always nostalgic). In their dangerous times her characters have to be good at leaving, because their leavings are to save themselves; The Visitor:

… but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself…

And in those leavings they find what is important, being those things that can’t be taken from them by Authority:

Which means that in the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight such as music.

A quite different gear, yes, because different times, but my life is a series of leavings each year. We – not the royal we, just Pauline and me – have always had dogs we’re soft about, a kennel unknown to any of them, so in order for us to have holidays we have had to purchase holiday houses. And given we are also three parts gypsy (and often two parts to the wind), there’s been a number of them: Purau Bay; Diamond Harbour, and currently, Mahau Sound, (although that one we’re in the process of moving to permanently).

Erpenbeck’s leavings are powerful symbolism of how our human lives are transitory (in the individual, not in the collective); place will always outlive us. And her leavings are as leavings have to be: meticulous. My ‘comfort in an ever-repeating pattern of ceremony’ phrase is deliberately Catholic. I was thinking of some of the writers I grew up on; Graham Green, Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, the craggy-faced Mr Auden, who in their after-careers turned to Catholicism for the structure through ceremony it gave their lives. Meaning, again (or if I’m cynical, perhaps the dozy old plonkers merely joined up for the death insurance – I don’t know). For me the ceremony it refers to is the liturgy that must be performed with every Leaving to ensure the subsequent Arriving will contain no unpleasant surprises, and something more.

Erpenbeck’s final character is The Illegitimate Owner – the occupier of the house when the Berlin Wall comes down, who is forced to leave when it is returned to descendants of its rightful owners who escaped to the West. I reckon the author may have done a lot of leavings, herself, because leavers like me can read the love behind every act The Illegitimate Owner makes:

Now she closes the door to the Little Bird Room, then closes the door to the bathroom that no longer has a floor, and now she goes down the stairs that creak at the second, fifteenth and the second-to-last step, closes the black shutters with the crank concealed inside the wall then closes behind her the living room door whose handle gives off a metallic sigh, closes the door to the kitchen, returns bucket, broom, cloth, hand brush, dustpan and scrub-brush to their places and closes the closet door which she’d always believed as a child, really led to the Garden of Eden, then she steps outside and finally locks the front door of the house, although she doesn’t understand how this can be possible since everything she is now locking away lies so deep within the interior, while the part of the world into which she is withdrawing is so far outside. She locks the door and then walks past the giant rhododendrons to the left of the house, ‘Mannesman Air Raid Defense’ s written on the bars that cover the cellar windows, she unlocks the gate, locks it again behind her, exits the front garden through the little gate in the fence and puts the worn-out key in her pocket, even though soon the only thing it will be good for is to unlock air.

That ‘worn-out’ key to the property, like The Gardener, is a motif tying the disparate lives together in the chain of humanity passing through the book; the key passing from hand to hand of the owners. Of course The Illegitimate Owner knew she would never be back, but every one of our leavings has that doubt also: will we be back? The logic of time is unrelenting that some leaving will be our last. That’s why ritualistic leavings are so poignant. That last mindful walk around the property turning the water off from the tanks (and noticing there’s a leak I hadn’t noticed, so how to get it fixed while away); unease because Marlborough has a serial arsonist this summer, starting seven fires to date, and a fire in the bush where we are would be impossible to get out without losing everything and we wouldn’t be there as witness; picking a bagful of lemons and a bagful of limes from our citrus orchard – there’s so many most will go mouldy before use, but they’re sacraments to take back to Life; the final look around the sight-lines of Our/not-our Sound – West to where the Mahau reaches around to the Mahakipawa Arm and then Havelock, East to where it flows into the Pelorus Sound and Keneparu, a big old mussel trawler dieseling its heavy way out, a blunt fronted work boat, nothing graceful about how it pushes a wall of water in front of it, me trying to hold it all in memory; and the final watering of the ever-present geraniums which must be on the deck of every Hubbard house for that glorious aroma on fingers, and happy, happy colouring they give, watering and wondering which of the plants will survive until The Return, and which won’t. Some always do survive. Some always die.

Or less prosaically, here’s our liturgy for leaving the Mahau, we cross the items off as we complete the tasks: Turn hot water cylinder off. Turn off bathroom floor and towel rail. Turn off electronic bidet and take battery from unit. Turn off filter under sink.Turn off gas hob and ovens. Unwire Freeview decoder and pack. (DON’T FORGET REMOTE.) Clean out fridge. Take photo of cellar so we remember if we need to buy wine on return trip. (Alcohol memory.) Turn fly killer canister thingy off. Turn gas bottle off under the house. Cinema room blackout blind down. Unplug amp and projector. Check door lock. Turn off water in pump shed. [All wall switches, plus close lever.] Note in mail box to tell Neil we’re gone, ‘no junk mail please’. Unplug everything in the office (leave modem on). Clean out espresso machine & unplug from wall. Turn all pantry switches off. Make sure BBQ is covered and hidden. [Ensure tray is out.] Pick up Daisy dog, who will be hiding (she hates leavings).

After the ceremony is performed, we get in the car, and often can’t talk much for the first hour, for a leaving is also mourning a place lost to time.

The geranium that died by the last Return:

erpenbeck-geraniums

Postscript: in other happenings there’s some better than expected news about my novel manuscript, which I wrote about here … but more of that in a future post (perhaps).

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck. Of Place and Leavings.

  1. It sounds like a must- read… oh yes, so many leavings in my life too… leaving Penang at seventeen on the ship, and my heart hurting so much I had to promise I would come back, and then I wouldn’t need to say goodbye… fascinating subject.., some leavings are also escapes, and then there are the reluctant ones, the house being cleaned and loved for the last time and flowers and wine and cards left to make sure the new owners might love the place as much as I did….

    As I read your story (ad I love reading About books almost as much as I love reading books ) I thought of a novel _ alas still packed up – called Death in Danzig, in which the Germans have a deadline by which to leave their beloved home and everything in it, – flowered cups, all the treasures inherited from past generations – for unknown Poles to wander in and take it, lock, stock and barrel after World War Two – perhaps the most painful and exquisitely described leaving I have ever read…

    As usual your writing has set me off on interesting trials of thought… all the best with your book….Valerie

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Valerie.

      I’ve got your two books on my wish-list; will be picking them up when I’m through the last of the day-job work at end of March. I suspect your ‘leavings’ make Pauline and I look positively sedentary 🙂

      Oh, Death in Danzig goes onto my list also.

      I’m so over work for the moment; time to take Daisy dog for a temporary leaving to a bush walk.

      Like

  2. A book without named characters, and seemingly without any dialogue, would be condemned by all the ‘How to write a best-seller’ advocates as a non-starter. It is apparent, though, from your full and insightful review that it has been brought off.
    This also strikes a chord from the point of view of the ‘leavings’ I have endured. Special places, indeed. The only consolation is that both of the really painful ones did not remain what they were, so thoughts of return vanish.

    Liked by 2 people

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