Visitation

Benjamin Markovits writes:

Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Visitation, can be read as a response or a companion to Sebald’s The Emigrants. The German title makes this clearer: Heimsuchung, ‘looking for home’, ‘returning home’. Like Sebald, Erpenbeck attempts to take the long view of modern German history, though her perspective is geological rather than historical. Visitation begins with an account of the landscape around a lake in Brandenburg: ‘Approximately 24,000 years ago, a glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of rock …’ Twenty-four thousand years later, a wealthy mayor owns most of the lakeside real estate. He produces no sons; one of his four daughters goes mad and drowns in the lake; the others fail to marry. The land goes out of the family. An architect buys it some time after the First World War (there are few dates given) and builds a beautiful house on it, with stained glass windows, wrought-iron balconies, a secret closet. This house subsequently passes through a string of owners and occupants: a Jewish family waiting for their visas; the Russian army; another architect, an East German who is later imprisoned for doing business with the West – until it falls into disrepair. At the end of the book, the house is torn down and the landscape, ‘if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more’. The landscape, of course, doesn’t care who occupies it, and if the view you take is long enough then the terrible events of the 20th century that shaped these people’s lives begin to look rather small.

(LRB 30 June 2011)

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