In an unnamed Latin American country under an unblinking sun, an unnamed girl tries to find words for the things that make up her life. Father and mother. Ball. Car. But, in the world she inhabits, words do not mean what they say; they have "silent halves... dragging them down like lead weights". The real story is the one "that goes on to the right and the left and above and below the edges of the picture".
Within the edges of the picture is the vividly realised world of childhood: lullabies, prayers, nursery rhymes, friends, games, sunlit gardens, illnesses, and the strange, incomprehensible doings of adults, observed from a child's perspective in a present-tense, stream-of-consciousness narrative. The child's mother is distant, leaving her to the care of a wet-nurse, her father an imposing figure who works "in a palace whose exterior is perfectly white", where he "sees to it that things are made orderly". In the background is a distant vista of a country where it snows, which only her grandmother can remember, but which has left its legacy in her mother's eyes, which are the colour of water.
Beyond the edges of this picture, things are being made orderly. A woman is dragged off a bus by her hair; all the railways are closed down after a strike, never to reopen; people disappear – the gardener, her piano teacher, the daughter of her wet-nurse. In their place appear marble statues of men who visit the house to smoke cigars with her father in his study.
A placard appears proclaiming "Silence is health". In this Year Zero, even the units of measurement, the calendar and the hours of the day are changed. Such things are matters of convention, made by people, and can be changed by people. As are words, which no longer mean what they say.
Jenny Erpenbeck, a playwright and opera director from East Berlin, came to the attention of English-speaking readers with her eerily brilliant novella The Old Child in 2006. More ambitious in technique and scope, The Book of Words reaches at times into the realm of magical realism, as at the dreamlike birthday party at which the guests are the transparent, wraithlike figures of the disappeared. The construction is intricate and masterly. Seemingly innocent words for seemingly innocent things one by one ambush the reader with their true meaning as the narrative moves towards its horrific denouement. Hands, eyes, nose, mouth ... heat, cold and wet.
If the book's setting recalls Argentina during the "dirty war" of the 1970s and early 1980s, the narrator's ancestry points to another country. There, two generations earlier, the meaning of words was also systematically distorted to sanitise political violence: the author's homeland.
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