In 1919, contemplating the wreckage of the European powers in the wake of a world war, Paul Valéry noted that “the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all”. Seventy years later, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was hailed as “the end of history” by a triumphalist West.
Jenny Erpenbeck has published five remarkable works of fiction profoundly concerned with the past. Her novel Visitation focuses on a grand house in Brandenburg and its succession of occupants over the course of the 20th century. One of the most memorable chapters recounts the fate of a Jewish girl in a brilliant, 10-page distillation of the Holocaust.
In The End of Days, a cot death triggers a speculation: what lives might a European woman have lived in the previous century, and what deaths might she have died? In its fascination with chance, the novel draws equally on fairytales and philosophy, but history remains a determining factor. The woman’s lives are shaped by collective events.
Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck’s latest and most realist novel, takes the refugee crisis as its subject. Its protagonist, Richard, befriends a group of African refugees in Berlin. Like Erpenbeck herself, Richard has grown up in the socialist German Democratic Republic. He comes to see that what separates him from the Africans is only geopolitical luck.
When Richard’s world vanished with the Wall, the Bundesrepublik offered him a new life powered by deutschmarks and a fresh passport. The Africans, too, come from shattered worlds. One by one they describe the wars or environmental catastrophes that have driven them to seek asylum. But Germany is unwilling to rescue these victims of history’s bullying.
The fairytale is a significant form for Erpenbeck, as she acknowledges in Not a Novel, her new nonfiction collection. If history were a fairytale written by capitalism, East Berlin would be a city placed under the evil spell of socialism and cut off from progress by the thorny hedge of its Wall. In the West, the GDR is perceived as a joyless, dreary place, a totalitarian society founded on surveillance and fear. That’s the dominant story – hits such as Stasiland and The Lives of Others attest to its pull.
Erpenbeck offers a counter-narrative, constructing a different country from the rubble of the past. Some of the best essays here recount her “happy childhood”. East Berlin, with its “small-town sense of calm”, was a place where she felt “utterly safe”. While recognising the GDR’s failures, Erpenbeck misses a country where private property and advertising didn’t exist, buying and selling meant little, and children weren’t taught that life is a competition.
When the Wall came down, Erpenbeck was 22. In every life, the border between childhood and adulthood crumbles at some point. In Erpenbeck’s case, the collapse was a world-historical event that instantly made “a museum” of her past. It also made her a writer. She had studied opera directing, but five years after the Wall fell she began to write.
To say that Erpenbeck engages with history is to say that she engages with transformation and time. Fairytales teach that change can be cruel. Erpenbeck’s two novellas centre on young women who have found the transition to adulthood traumatic. The protagonist of The Old Child pretends to be a schoolgirl and has herself admitted to a children’s home for reasons that are not disclosed. In The Book of Words, a woman who has grown up under a military dictatorship in South America learns as an adult that her father tortured political prisoners for a career.
Both women crave the safety of childhood: a country where rules are clear, an adored father is yet to be revealed as a monster, and dissidents thrown from a plane can be understood as strange birds falling through the sky.
One way to read these narratives is as a metaphor for Erpenbeck’s dismay at finding herself thrust into a Germany radiant with capitalism after the Wall fell. Among the “freedoms” that 1989 was said to bring, she notes the “freedom to shop” and asks: “What happens when we’re finished shopping?”
It’s a question that strikes to the heart of consumerism. It also points to what might be called innocence or trust or hope, but is in any case the legacy of a socialist upbringing. Erpenbeck knows that history never ends but she doesn’t know that capitalism renders her question meaningless. Any child reared in a market economy could tell her that shopping – like the impossible tasks heroes strive to complete in fairytales – never ends.
Erpenbeck’s narrative voice is direct, clear, bright and favours the present tense. The combination brings folktales and proverbs to mind: the limpid surface, the hard truth underneath. It’s the voice of an old child, and Erpenbeck’s writing seems wise in an ancient and enduring way.
Not a Novel is an indispensable complement to the fiction that has brought her acclaim across the world. It presents a grab bag of forms: personal essays, lectures, acceptance speeches and an obituary for a Nigerian refugee. The essays include Erpenbeck’s reflections on her literary influences: along with fairytales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and opera (which freed her from “the compulsion to realism”).
Among the most potent pieces is “Open Bookkeeping”, written after the death of Erpenbeck’s mother. A catalogue of what her daughter inherited, it includes bills, a recipe for meatballs, the writer’s shoe size, her voice. The result is echt Erpenbeck: precise, unsentimental, deeply affecting.
What former United States president Donald Trump called shitholes, Erpenbeck reclassifies as “blind spots”: places that are overlooked by the smug, oblivious West. She knew one intimately, experienced what it was like to be one of the disregarded. It has led her to peer into the abyss of history, and describe what she sees there with electrifying clarity and compassion.
Michelle de Kretser
Granta, 208pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2021 as "Not a Novel, Jenny Erpenbeck".
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