Friday, February 20, 2015

A Plot on a Plot of Land

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck


When it comes to historical fiction, the years before, during and after World War II have become some of the most popular to write about, mostly because of the opportunity they give the writer to evoke strong emotions in their readers. Yet, with all the drama that this era affords, far too often these books seem to meld into one another. How many times can we read about going off to war, the broken who returned or even the enormous scope of the many horrors of the war itself?

Erpenbeck, however, gives us a completely different point of view. As expected, the action of Visitation starts from the early 1930s, and she continues her tale to cover the following 50-60 years, at the least. The exact timeline here isn't fully evident, as it is never precisely noted. However, one can assume quite a bit through the hints that Erpenbeck gives us. For example, early in the book she notes how one character doesn't join in conversations about things such as the boxing match when the German Schmeling took the world heavy weight title from the American Joe Lewis (which happened in 1930).

With this tiny detail, one can already see how special this novel is. Erpenbeck further enhances this by concentrating her story on a plot of land in Germany's Brandenburg hills, along with the home built on it, the people who visit there and most importantly, the gardener who took care of it for so many years. In this way, Erpenbeck floats on the edges of history, while only alluding to events that took place far from this idyllic location, as her story unfurls. Through this, the home and its various inhabitants evolve and change, but the gardener is always there as their witness and implementer. Erpenbeck does all this with a particularly poignant and unique style, repeating snippets of phrases - both poetic and mundane - for effect and emphasis.

With so many years to cover, one might think that this is a sweeping epic, with hundreds or even thousands of pages of prose. On the contrary, the genius of this book is that it is a mere 150 pages, with every one of them filled with pure delight. I cannot recommend this book more highly, and at the same time, give the utmost praise to the translator Susan Bernofsky for making the English version of this book such an amazing work of art.


 "Visitation" by Jenny Erpenbeck published by New Directions Paperback, released September 30, 2010 (originally 2008) is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This review was first published (but no longer appears) on the website Daily Two Cents.

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