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Jenny Erpenbeck: Heimsuchung (Visitation)

Jenny Erpenbeck’s third novel – if we count Die Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Old Child) as a novel – was the one that brought her to the attention of the world and rightly so. It is a first-class novel, though only 150 pages long, about Germany in the twentieth century and the whole issues of German guilt and the dark side of Germany. It is centred round a house by a lake in Brandenburg (in the former East Germany) and the people associated with the house, mainly, though not entirely, the owners.

Erpenbeck starts with how the lake was formed approximately twenty-four thousand years ago. This is not mere authorial verbiage, as the lake will become a key symbol of the book, the buried guilty secrets of the German people. The book tells the stories of the various people who own/live in the house, starting with Klara. Her father, the village mayor, has four daughters. Klara is the youngest and her mother died giving birth to her. The eldest daughter nearly married but it fell through. The second one had an affair with a workman who was driven off when her father found out about it. He locks her in the smokehouse and she aborts her baby. The third one is something of a tomboy and never marries. Klara also has an affair but her father finds out and forbids her to leave the farm. She slowly goes insane and finally kills herself.

The other stories are equally grim. There is the architect who survived the Nazis and managed to do well under the Communists till he was found to have bought (with his own money) a ton of screws from the West to be used in a building he had designed. He has to flee but not before he hides his valuables, burying them as the German guilt has been buried. Before him there had been the Jewish family in the forties. They had sold the house to the architect, who paid them only half what it was worth but, as he rationalised it as saying that it was more than they would have got from anyone else. What he did not know was that the money, which he had to pay into a special account which was frozen till they were granted their exit visas, was never paid out to the Jewish family but rather went to the Nazi government. The Jewish family was murdered at Kulmhof.

The property is occupied by the Red Army at the end of the War, who take special pains to damage it. Only the commander finds the secret closet where the architect’s wife is hiding. After the war much of the property is given to a Berlin-based doctor, who is treating a high-ranking official and therefore has a lot of influence. We follow the story of the family who are of German origin but have lived in the Soviet Union but have now come to Germany and the house and we follow the gradual decay of the house, before, at the end, an estate agent is trying to sell it off, after German reunification but it is subject to a legal claim because of illegal dispossession. And all the while, there is one character who seems to have been around forever, who lives there but is not an owner. He is called the Gardener but he is, in fact, a general handyman as well as gardener. But it is he who carefully plants new plants, tends the old ones and who uncovers the hidden lake under the soil when planting his plants. It is he who repairs, as much as he can, the decaying building. It is he who is always there, observing but never speaking, the German conscience, if you will.

Erpenbeck really does an excellent job of showing German history of the twentieth century in such a short book. The valuables hidden in the lake when the Soviets arrive and buried when the architect leaves the area are equated with the burial of the bodies of local Jews found in the forest. Erpenbeck has written not a Holocaust novel nor an East German novel but a German novel, warts and all, showing us that Germany has buried its past but, like the bodies of the Jews or the valuables hidden in the lake, everything come back to the surface sooner or later. Everything except the gardener, who disappears.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Eichborn
First English translation by Portobello/New Directions in 2010