Visitation, By Jenny Erpenbeck, trs Susan Bernofsky

A German home is witness to momentous history
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The Independent Culture

Many novelists have surveyed the narrative assets provided by houses, with idiosyncratic homes from Brideshead to Manderlay creating plot threads and ominous atmospheres. In Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck shows that it doesn't require a great aristocratic pile to draw readers into another world.

Erpenbeck has focused on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake to produce a novel that layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. The tales illuminate the conflicts and conflictionssuffered and perpetuated by the German population during the Jahrhundertwende, the turn-of-the-century shift, and over the following decades of war, National Socialism and Soviet occupation. It's a Who Do You Think You Are? for bricks and mortar; a lineage of hope, despair, love and tragedy framed by an architect's dream weekend home.

The book is a mosaic of character portraits all linked to the property. There is Klara, the village mayor's melancholy daughter who, in the greying embers of the 19th century, should have inherited the forest plot; there is the nameless draughtsman who built the house for his wife, and the Red Army soldiers who shatter their peace. Each story is followed by glimpses into the seasonal life of the local gardener. The result is a strangely ethereal fairy tale of the Reich-scarred, Stasi-suppressed era and its lingering hangover.

In "The Architect", the titular designer has to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war GDR authorities. Closing up the house, "he buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he'll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt."

Erpenbeck has a lovely way of conjuring bittersweet images out of plaintive language. No more so than in the gardener's interludes, which act as a corrective to the characters' actions: "After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time."

The stories flit back and forth in time and shade. During the house's construction, we witness the pleasure of creating vistas from "open spaces and thickly overgrown ones" and illuminating rooms with coloured stain glass. However, later days are clouded by events. In "The Cloth Manufacturer", Erpenbeck takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the architect's neighbours and he proves to be a complicit bystander. With chilling brevity, the Jewish grandparents' fate in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence: "Arthur's eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she's never seen before."

The collusion of average German civilians in the atrocities of those years emerges like a photograph in developing fluid. It is a slow waltz of a tale, dancing along to the riffs and motifs of human fallibility. If Visitation has a central theme, it appears to be that everything is temporary but that history will judge whether your part in the proceedings was morally sound. A Brandenburg lake house proves to be a memorable courtroom for this arbitration into the lives of others.

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