The Old Child by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky

The girl - and her fellow countrymen - who didn't want to grow up

By Cj Schüler
Monday 04 December 2006 01:00

One evening, in an unnamed town in an unnamed country, a large, ungainly girl is found standing in a shopping street with an empty bucket in her hand. When the police take her in for questioning, she can remember nothing about herself except that she is 14 years old. The authorities send her to the local children's home.

With all memory of her past erased, the girl finds comfort and security in the regulated life of the institution, cut off from the world by a perimeter fence. There are no personal possessions: even the inmates' underwear goes back to the communal laundry. Her desire to lose herself in the group soon overrides her authentic emotional responses. One day, a film is shown to the children. It makes the girl sad, and she cries; but noticing the others are laughing, she suppresses her tears and laughs too.

At first her clumsy attempts to be like the others are rebuffed. Gradually, however, she is enlisted as an accomplice in their petty conspiracies and spiteful pranks. This wins her a grudging acceptance, but it becomes apparent that these adolescents are in the process of leaving childhood behind. The more she immerses herself in their world, the more she is forced to acknowledge its transience. When a commemorative event at the school revives a painful memory, the situation becomes untenable.

The dénouement, brought off with masterly understatement, suggests that Jenny Erpenbeck's book may be read as a parable of life in Communist East Germany, with its voluntary amnesia, isolation and submission to authority.

But this taut and troubling tale has a wider resonance. The girl stands in a long line of German literary protagonists traumatised into inarticulacy, forgetfulness or arrested development: Büchner's Woyzeck, Wasserman's Caspar Hauser, and Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. The story also belongs to a tradition of German fiction that probes the soporific appeal exerted by institutional life, even when - as in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain - it is stultifying or - as in Musil's Young Törless - brutal and humiliating.

When this bleakly compelling novella was published, Erpenbeck was hailed as one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing. Since then, she has completed a volume of short stories and a play. Despite some small but puzzling alterations, Susan Bernofsky's translation powerfully conveys the rhythm and tone of Erpenbeck's dry, laconic German prose.

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