Jenny Erpenbeck: ‘Visitation’

The German word “Heimat” roughly means home(land), and it often comes with strong connotations, a fair dose of idealism and a dash of nostalgia. However, for some Germans, the term “Heimat novel” brings to mind shiny supermarket paperbacks, not quality literature. “Heimat novels” would be stories in which characters turn their backs on urban life and return to the countryside to pursue a supposedly simpler life uncorrupted by modern ills. 

But nothing remains simple and uncorrupted in the world that Jenny Erpenbeck carefully traces out in her novel Heimsuchung, which roughly means “search for home(land).” The English title, Visitation, also carries a feeling of transience and impermanence.

‘Visitation’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

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Using the perspective of the inhabitants, servants and visitors, Erpenbeck reconstructs the history of a summer lake house located one hour southeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg. One house, three families, five generations: The novel condenses the insanity of a century of German history, from the Weimar Republic of the 1920s to the post-reunification years, into just under 200 pages. 

There is the architect from Berlin who builds his wife the thatched-roof house on the lake. There is the Jewish neighbor who flees the Nazis and sells his property to the architect for practically nothing. War. Collapse. A writer moves in, returning from exile in Russia. She wants to help build the German Democratic Republic and maintains the unshakeable belief in the utopia of a socialist Germany.

“I a-m  g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. No, she and her husband did not go home to Germany; what they wanted was to bring this country — only coincidentally the one whose language they spoke — back home again in their thoughts. They wanted finally to drag from beneath the German rubble some ground they could keep beneath their feet, ground that would no longer be illusory.”

The cycles of nature

The inhabitants of the lake house appear and disappear, just like the great ideologies of the time. The only constant in this world is the gardener. He is simply there and does want a gardener simply has to do, silently and without question, just like nature. At the end comes the demolition (with waste disposal according to legal guidelines), and then “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” A new cycle can begin in this thousand-year-old landscape of woods and water.

A woman draped in a long white dress is attended to by various people
Erpenbeck’s novel ‘Visitation’ was made into a play, which premiered in 2010 (above)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.P. Kasper

Visitation is a novel about the search for “Heimat,” home, and its loss.  It’s also about nature’s power to persist. The work digs deeply into history in a cleverly constructed way, using language that is straightforward, almost clinical in its emotional distance.  It is rightly celebrated as a (great) novel of the century.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s works are marked by the themes of disappearance and the past, whether it’s her writing about the long shadow of childhood (The Old Child; The Book of Words) or her homage to saying goodbye (Things that Disappear). The author turned her attention to recent events in her 2015 novel, Go, Went, Gone, which deals with the refugee situation in Europe.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, Portobello Books (German title: Heimsuchung, 2008). English translation: Susan Bernofsky.

Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, studied bookbinding and theater and opera direction. She made her literary debut in 1999 with the novella The Old Child. She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize awarded for a non-English language novel and its translation into English. Her books have been translated into over 20 languages.