‘Ididn’t write the book because I wanted to become a writer,’ Jenny Erpenbeck says of her first novel – a novella really – in one of the pieces collected in Not a Novel. She was 27, had studied opera directing and was working in a bakery in her native Berlin when she started writing what would become The Old Child (1999). The germ was a news story she remembered from adolescence, a case of an adult impersonating a schoolchild, and her account of her motivation is matter of fact. She wrote because she had always liked to write, because a new laptop made it easier and because ‘I wasn’t used to having nothing to do with my brain.’ With grown-up discipline she wrote a story ‘about a woman who doesn’t want to grow up’. Then she landed a job at the opera house in Graz. She had no sense of being in a race for literary fame. The book sat in a drawer for three years and ‘it was only belatedly, and via various detours, that my manuscript made its way to the Eichborn publishing house, and suddenly they decided that it was already finished as it was, that is, they accepted it and printed it.’
In time, writing took over from opera directing. Visitation (2008) and The End of Days (2012) did well outside Germany, and the acceptance speeches for literary prizes reproduced in Not a Novel – there are many more in the German version – testify to her unlooked for stardom. In 2015 her novel Go Went Gone, which deals with the refugee crisis, was published at the height of the debate in Germany about asylum seekers arriving from Syria. Die Welt’s review appeared on 31 August, the day Angela Merkel – who, like Erpenbeck, grew up in the German Democratic Republic – upended national policy with the words ‘Wir schaffen das’: ‘We can do this.’ The border opened four days later.
Not a Novel is a selection of Erpenbeck’s occasional writings from 1999 to 2018. The English edition, translated by Kurt Beals, is less than half the length of the original. It contains memoir, pieces on writers Anglophone editors might have heard of (Hans Fallada, Thomas Mann, Walter Kempowski, Ovid) and two forays into social criticism. It’s a useful introduction to a body of work in which what isn’t being said, or isn’t being said in the expected way, can be as significant as what is. ‘Open Bookkeeping’, a piece about her mother’s death in 2008, rehearses the technique in miniature, itemising the tasks the death imposed on her – paying a bill for €1.42; disposing of household goods; ordering and putting up a gravestone; working out what to do with her mother’s flat – before ending, after the flat has been rented out a year later: ‘Now I’d like to call my mother.’
In Erpenbeck’s fiction, great swathes of detail serve a similar function. Visitation, which looks at Germany through the 20th century via the history of a lakeside house near Berlin, and The End of Days, which does the same by means of five different versions of one woman’s life, both arrive at some of their most piercing moments by tracking particular objects. In The End of Days a Jewish family’s looted heirlooms turn up in a Viennese antique shop, where a tourist inspects, but doesn’t buy, the multi-volume edition of Goethe that his great-grandmother lugged from place to place until she was put on a transport in 1941. In Visitation the uprooting of an ailing fir tree reveals a case full of porcelain buried by an architect before he fled to West Berlin. Years later, the architect’s work for Albert Speer is merely a point of interest in an estate agent’s sales pitch.
Both novels are also concerned with rituals and the way of life of particular groups. The End of Days, in which the anonymous central character dies over and over again, has a particular interest in rituals of mourning. After the woman’s first death, as an infant in a small Galician town, her mother covers the mirrors, ‘so the child’s soul wouldn’t turn back’, and empties out all the water in the house: ‘They say the Angel of Death would wash his sword in it.’ As an eminent East German writer, she’s given a funeral with music by Haydn, a wreath from the Central Committee and a military procession. Her son wonders whether the soldiers are there ‘to ensure that the officially prescribed levels of grief are maintained’. After her final death, in a reunified Germany, there’s only private weeping. Visitation is bookended by two bravura passages: a description of a wedding in the village where the house will one day be built – in the form of a list of the rules that must be followed to avert bad luck – and a description of the house’s demolition many years down the line, presented as a guide to the relevant environmental regulations: ‘In order to calculate the number of truckloads that will be required to remove the debris, one must also take into account the fact that the material is not densely packed, which involves multiplying by a factor of 1.3.’
As with the bill for €1.42, the obsessive attention to detail draws attention to the feelings that aren’t being dramatised (the wedding never happens because the bride goes mad; a woman is moved by the demolition of the site of her childhood idyll). A synthetic omniscience turns data into poetry. The effect is similar to the description in Ulysses of the way water reaches Bloom’s kitchen tap: details so hyper-realistic that they bounce the reader out of the ordinary mode of the realist novel. The End of Days gives map co-ordinates for every spot where a character meets a violent death, and Visitation begins outside human history, ‘approximately 24,000 years ago’, with the glaciers that formed the lakes in the Brandenburg hills. At the same time, it doesn’t take too much work to piece together a more conventional set of stories, or even a family saga, from the novels’ discontinuous episodes.
On the face of it, Erpenbeck’s first two books are quite different. In The Old Child, a mysterious girl, who gives her age as fourteen but offers no other information about herself, turns up in the street one day. The authorities put her in a children’s home, where she happily assumes a lowly place in the adolescent social hierarchy, a place determined by her slowness and silence and oddly lumpen physical presence. Erpenbeck’s second book, another novella, The Book of Words (2007), is the monologue of a disturbed young woman who jumps between childhood memories and adult retrospection. Her account of a bourgeois upbringing in an unnamed hot country, where her blue-eyed parents teach her traditional German songs, is interrupted by grotesque, apparently hallucinated images: a child’s severed hands, nuns falling from the sky. Even in translation, both books are filled with striking phrases which suggest that the poetic concentration of the writing is more than half the point. Attentive pupils expend great effort ‘to drive their minds along in front of them’. Unspoken words accumulate ‘like a heap of scrap metal … and sometimes she even looks down to see whether one of these sentences isn’t poking out of her side.’
They’re also less self-enclosed than they appear. The surreal images in The Book of Words, and the monologue’s disjointed structure, eventually resolve with disturbing clarity: as an infant, the narrator was taken from her birth parents, who were ‘disappeared’ in a dirty war closely modelled on Argentina’s, and brought up to call their torturer and murderer ‘father’. For good measure, it’s strongly implied that her adoptive grandparents are exiled Nazis. The unsettling atmosphere of The Old Child – which seems at first to be playing rather bookishly with motifs from Robert Walser and Thomas Mann – is also explained, though even after she has been unmasked as an adult, the central character doesn’t disclose her motives.
As Erpenbeck tells us, these false childhoods can be interpreted in various ways. The old child might be playing a game, or protesting against the vacuity of adult life, or staging a breakdown (she writes herself notes saying things like ‘AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED, YOU ARE DEAD. BEST WISHES – YOUR MAMA’), or acting out a historical allegory. ‘We can see the National Socialists’ ambitions for total domination reflected in the girl’s self-abasement,’ Erpenbeck suggests, ‘and we can see the destruction of Dresden, which is mentioned at one point, as a sign of the failure of those ambitions, the nearing end.’ The most obvious interpretation, however, is that Erpenbeck was beginning to feel her way through the great historical crisis of her early adult life: the abrupt collapse of the GDR when she was a student in East Berlin. ‘There was suddenly a lot of talk of freedom,’ she recalls in a piece called ‘Homesick for Sadness’,
which floated freely in all sorts of sentences. Freedom to travel? (But will we be able to afford it?) Or freedom of opinion? (What if no one cares about my opinion?) Freedom to shop? (But what happens when we’re finished shopping?) Freedom wasn’t given freely, it came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point … Our everyday lives weren’t everyday lives any more, they were an adventure that we had survived, our customs were suddenly an attraction. In the course of just a few weeks, what had been self-evident ceased to be self-evident. A door that opens only once a century had opened, but now the century was also gone forever. From that moment on, my childhood belonged in a museum.
Erpenbeck treads a delicate line in writing about her childhood. She makes it clear that she isn’t given to ‘Ostalgie’. Still, she sometimes hints that the triumph of capitalism might not be to everyone’s satisfaction and that growing up in a less consumerist society, with a utopian – if endlessly deferred – vision of the future, wasn’t all bad. She has to tread extra carefully here because of her family’s place in the GDR’s intellectual aristocracy. The protagonist in The End of Days and the character of a grand old writer in Visitation are both versions of her paternal grandmother, Hedda Zinner, a much decorated writer and broadcaster whose husband, Fritz Erpenbeck, a writer and dramaturge, was a senior cultural functionary in the 1950s and 1960s. Erpenbeck’s mother was Naguib Mahfouz’s German translator; her father is a physicist and writer, and there can’t have been many children in East Germany who were allowed to spend a year in Rome, as she was, in 1974. This wasn’t everyone’s GDR.
Her focus in these recollections isn’t so much politics, however, as the process of change: disorienting, but just as inexorable – and in some ways as morally neutral – as the glaciers that rolled over the landscape 24,000 years ago. ‘It has nothing to do with the question of whether the past that is now being replaced was pleasant or unpleasant, good or evil, honest or dishonest,’ she writes after exploring the ruins of her secondary school. What she’s looking for there is ‘simply time, time that really did pass in this way that I knew, and that was preserved in those rooms’. The archaeological quality of her imagination allows her to come at East Germany from unexpected angles. She writes of learning to roller-skate on a street that was free from traffic because it terminated at the Wall, of money that was ‘light like play money’, of counting off the minutes of the school day on a huge capitalist clockface she could see in West Berlin. The only mystery solved when she looks at her Stasi file is the identity of a boy who once sent her anonymous love letters. It was ‘a pale, skinny boy who had fallen in love with me when I played a mermaid in a pageant at summer camp’.
Other kinds of change gradually became legible too. As a child, Erpenbeck
didn’t differentiate between the ruins that the Second World War had left behind and the empty lots and city-planning absurdities that resulted from the construction of the Wall … Buildings still painted with the words ‘Dairy’ or ‘Coal Merchant’ in the gothic script of the Nazi era, even though no dairy or coal shop had been there for years, were an everyday sight.
East German schoolchildren were taught that the Federal Republic was entirely responsible for the war, and ‘it was only much later, when I was already grown, that I learned that the magnificent red marble in the Mohren Strasse subway station, which was called Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse in East German days, came from the ruins of the Reich Chancellery.’ Schiller’s furniture, she reports, was once ‘stored in the Buchenwald concentration camp’. The indignation in the novels, the careful tracing of provenance and the feeling of a world in constant flux are ancillary benefits, these recollections seem to imply, of her childhood in East Berlin.
Erpenbeck writes that she slept through the night the Wall fell. Her tone is self-deprecating rather than curmudgeonly, but it gets sharper when she contemplates the transformation East Germany underwent. In December 1989, she saw a man from the West handing out Christmas wrapping paper without leaving his truck, ‘so that we, the needy people who didn’t have such lovely, shiny wrapping paper, could have a chance to enjoy something pretty for a change. I’m sure that he meant well … [But] it was a gesture of objective arrogance, so to speak.’ She felt more comfortable travelling to Austria and Italy than to Frankfurt or Cologne. The firm that published her grandmother’s books went bankrupt. ‘Whatever was broken, whatever was flawed, was left in the blind spots, in the shadows,’ she writes. ‘The grey façades, the gaps left by the bombs, the dead ends along the dividing line gradually disappeared, and I could hardly find my way around my own city.’ There are disapproving references to ‘desirable locations’ and designer shoes. There’s also the feeling of a writer finding her subject. Her first non-fiction book, a volume of essays that hasn’t been translated into English, was called Dinge, die verschwinden: ‘Things that disappear’.
Go Went Gone – the title is a verb conjugation: ‘Gehen, ging, gegangen’ – circles around a set of questions that she asks more polemically in a later lecture:
Why do we still see pictures on TV every year on the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, showing happy East Germans jubilantly sitting astride the wall – whereas pictures of people scaling the twenty-foot barbed-wire fence that separates the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco only inspire tougher security measures from the European Union?
Why do we still hear laments for the Germans who died attempting to flee over the Wall but almost none for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years, turning the sea into a giant grave? Why is it that the opening of the border in 1989 was something wonderful, but today voices cry out for new and stronger borders? What is the difference between these two groups of people who aspire to a new life, to this thing we call ‘freedom’?
The novel is based on the experiences of asylum seekers who lived in a protest camp in Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg between 2012 and 2014. The main character, however, is a retired classics professor called Richard, a widower from the former East Berlin whose wife drank herself to death for reasons he doesn’t like to think about. Among other things, Richard is a lightning conductor for the worries a white European novelist might have in trying to dramatise the lives of African refugees. Clueless about geography, and given to consulting Herodotus, he draws up an almost childlike list of questions and decides to interview the Oranienplatz protesters out of a need to do something with his brain as well as a more obscure feeling of moral unease.
Richard’s daily life is portrayed with eerily undifferentiated Erpenbeckian detail. We read about his open sandwiches, that he treats himself to a boiled egg on Sundays, of his trips to the garden centre to have his lawnmower blades sharpened, of his memories of his wife and his lover, and his musings on the fate of his possessions after his death. His tentative steps into activism constitute the plot of the novel, but its substance is the semi-reported testimony he elicits from Rashid, Karon, Awad and others. (Not a Novel includes Erpenbeck’s obituary for Bashir Zakaryau, the model for Rashid.) Richard, whose self-examination only extends to admitting he wasn’t very nice to his wife, isn’t offered as an especially admirable figure. With his elegantly essayistic inner voice, the unusual perspective afforded by his historical experience, and his quizzical attitude towards the global order, he could almost be a J.M. Coetzee character. In a novel by Coetzee, however, there would be an impassable line of otherness and guilt to be negotiated. Richard just wanders over the line and gets on with it.