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it was amazing
Home is where the heart is
Reading Neil MacGregror’s fascinating Germany: Memories of a Nation a few months ago amply affirmed I still have a long path to go in the sighting of Germany’s history and literature. Sensing this need, two marvelous friends were so kind to bring Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels to my attention, in particular Visitation (Heimsuchung). As Visitation is fiction which is ingeniously connected with episodes from Germany’s troubling contemporary history, this short novel was a trea
Eastern Germany, a plot of land close to Berlin. A lake. A summer cottage. A house. A garden. Behold the ostensibly idyllic and innocent setting where Jenny Erpenbeck, German writer and opera director, stages her magnificently imaginative composition, dense with props which seem so trivial in everyday life – clothes, kitchen ware, towels, sheets – but are fraught with ambivalence. In 12 slims chapters the subsequent residents of the house and adjacent land – mostly nameless characters apart from the Jewish characters, who significantly enough do get names – are grinded through the implacable mill of Germany’s turbulent history. With seven-league boots Erpenbeck clears a way through roughly 150 unsettling years, from the Imperial Germany, via WWII and the Holocaust, the Russian occupation of East-Germany, the Communist era to Germany’s reunification and its aftermath. Notwithstanding the breathtaking pace, Erpenbeck knows how to delight and grow the reader silent with her gossamer prose. Snippets of individual lives and domestic scenes and tragedies are daintily painted, subtly etching the impact of horrendous events, changes of regime, change of power rules and morals, on ordinary lives. The graceful prose skillfully contrasts with some brutal events dealt with. Cross referencing, creating an atmosphere of menace through unveiling gradually the horror by carefully stashing away hints in minor details in a previous chapter, connecting and entwining the poignant and tragic tranches de vie of the subsequent residents and visitors, the intricate structure of the novel resembles the hidden closets in the lake house.
The only figure which is constantly present and is not washed away by History is the gardener. Ineluctably, nature’s seasonal cycle urges the gardener to intervene, repetitively performing his tasks tending the garden, the intermittent sentences on his routines (sowing, planting, watering) knotting together the passage of the characters, taking the reader from one resident’s life to another, like the recurrent variations on the Promenade theme in Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition mirror the viewer pacing progressively past the paintings, until the theme merges in the movement and reaches its apotheosis in the finale, the Gate of Kiev.
What would you call home? Can one create oneself a lasting home? Does the act of building equals creating a place in the world? One of the characters, the Architect, ponders on his profession:
(…) planning homes, planning a homeland. Four walls around a block of air., wresting a block of air from amid all that burgeoning, billowing matter, with claws of stone, pinning it down. Home. A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothes. Homestead.
The German title ‘Heimsuchung’, seeking for a home, where one is safe and secure, exhumes the melancholy yearning of the characters in the novel. Almost all of them will be chased from and lose their homes and familiar surroundings, or even their physical and psychological integrity and worse, become effaced by the ravages of Time, like the slow decay and decrepitation of the house and garden themselves.
His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height, width and depth; It was always his business to build things high, wide and deep, but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.
There is a poignant sense of contingency of human existence to this novel. Panta rhei. Everything is temporary. Time consumes and crushes man and his futile life and creations. Nothing last forever, apart from the powers of nature. Reading ·Karen·’s wonderful review on Erpenbeck last novel, Gehen, ging, gegangen which does divert from the historical take and deals with migration, a sense of evanescence seems a leitmotiv also discernable in her latest novel: regimes fall, and values change.
Albeit stylistically very different from the poignant oral testimonies recorded by Svetlana Alexievich in Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets as Erpenbeck’s prose takes a much more distant approach, this novel also is a compelling account on the devastating effects of regime changes affecting people’s lives.
This haunting and intense novel chimes a writer’s voice I’d love to listen to again. Thank you, Philippe and ·Karen·, for putting Jenny Erpenbeck tightly on my radar.
Some of Erpenbeck’s lines on the feeling of homelessness, both of Germans and of refugees are heart-rending.
“Home! he’d cried out like a child that would give anything not to be seeing what it was seeing, but precisely in this one brief moment in which he hid his face in his hands, as it were, even the dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things. H-o-m-e. Which thou must leave ere long. After he had swum his way through a brief bout of despair, the German official had applied to retain his post. those others, though, the ones who had fled their homeland before they themselves could be transformed into monsters, were thrust into homelessness by the news that reached them from back home, not just for the years of their emigration but also, as seems clear to her now, for all eternity, regardless of whether or not they returned.”
”As she looks back like this, time appears in its guise as the twin of time, everything flattening out. Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less and 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 everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find those dandelions, these larks.”
”At some point the gong sounds, calling them all to supper. Then her granddaughter comes back up from sunbathing on the dock, humming quietly to herself just as she has done all her life, even as a little girl. 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.”
it was amazing
That it was published by New Directions played a significant role in my deciding to read this book before others I have lined up for the Women in Translation Month, and I thank my luck that I did. The protagonist of the novel is a house, a lakeside property outside Berlin, which has witnessed history’s mood-swings from its origins as a pine forest owned by a local town mayor back in the 1600s CE down to our present times when the knocking down of the Berlin Wall forced it to change its inhabitan
My family’s permanent address has not changed for the last +/- 350 years. My ancestors came from a town 150 km away and have lived here ever since, although in recent times many of us have moved out to big cities and to other countries, in search of new lives, but have always endeavoured to return to our place of origin every now and then, especially on festive occasions like Eid, and once every few years if living abroad.
The oldest part of the house dates from 1870s and the rest of what stands today was built and added in the 1930s. This latter addition was done by demolishing an old extended section that was originally built sometime in the early 1700s on fallow land. An uncle of mine added the latest amendments, a new men’s parlour and few guestrooms, in 2000s, in the oldest part atop a hummock which my grandfather had left to his elder brother and moved to a newer construction in the 1930s.
I can give more details, of constructions, additions, demolitions, caving-ins, earthquakes, Persian tilework, old furniture built to last generations (the old charpoys my grandmother had brought in her dowry, still in good condition after minor repairs); of births and deaths, disputes and disagreements, wars and famines, the place changing hands from Mughal India to an independent princely state, then from British India into Pakistan, through which generations of its inhabitants have passed. Many things have happened during that long stretch of time but no upheaval or misfortune has been great enough to dislodge us from our estate.
But humanity has a quarrel with reality, having for eons rejected definitions of it while seeking, with the craving of an addict, one more new interpretation, whilst destroying the world in its stubborn refusal to learn from history, all that presumably for the benefit of humankind. The house in Ms Erpenbeck’s novel is located at a place which has seen the worst of European history pass through its doors, defiling its peace, trampling its serenity, destroying its meadows, and, in a cruel joke, turning the lake as a dead end for the escapees than a spot of leisurely activity for holidayers.
There is a strong sense of déjà vu in each of the stories of its characters and their families, related at one time or another to the house, who have fought or traded the right to own and live on the property with each other sometimes on pain of expulsion, at times by force of exigency, yet at others when the right of ownership was first taken away, and then given back, in a back-and-forth circus of the last one hundred years, depending on which power system happened to prevail at the time. And amazingly, Ms Erpenbeck’s language corresponds closely to the confusions of history as it constructs itself, then disintegrates, and again assembles in a slightly altered formation, with a degree of repetition informing the similarities between its long line of inhabitants, as if words were recalcitrant banshees brought up in a knot to fill the air with their endless cries.
The new world is to devour the old one, the old one puts up a fight, and now new and old are living side by side in a single body. Where much is asked, more is left out.
Long time ago, in different time, in other era, when the world was young yet, when these hillocks were part of huge mountain range a glacier went through, crushing everything on its way, changing lay of the land, curving rocks and forming basins which filled with water. Former inhabitants, lions and saber-toothed tigers gone and then we entered on the scene, embracing that land and naming lake between hills the Sea of the Mark Brandenburg.
Between silent green hummocks, amid pine grooves and alde