Jenny Erpenbeck’s Lost Edens

side by side series of the cover of Visitation

Critics have been praising Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Heimsuchung (2008), titled Visitation in Susan Bernofsky’s 2010 translation, ever since its publication. The novel frequently appears on German literature college-level syllabi, shows up on graduate school lists for qualifying examinations, has been translated into many other languages, and is one of the staple titles mentioned in discussions of trends in contemporary European literature. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, despite the novel’s slim, compact nature, its unsettling lyricism, deeply allegorical structure, and what some may take as obscure subject matter: the history of a small parcel of land, on the edge of the Brandenburg-region lake known as the Märkisches Meer, and of the structures built on it from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Visitation turns all such potential pitfalls into opportunities to demonstrate formal mastery, shaping them into a sophisticated retelling of the Creation and Fall stories from the biblical book of Genesis, while avoiding the clichés that mar many recent novels that focus on twentieth-century Germany.

The German noun “Heimsuchung” of the novel’s original title means something like affliction, misfortune, or even plague. In its older sense, however, it can also suggest a divine visitation, or a supernatural visit in order to judge, examine, or dispense justice (sometimes in the form of such affliction or misfortune). The biblical book of Jeremiah, for example, uses the term in this latter way multiple times. The Lutherbibel, Textbibel edition of the Bible from the late nineteenth century, and the Einheitsübersetzung standard translation of 1980, among others, all refer to a “Heimsuchung” when the prophet rails against the inhabitants of Jerusalem in chapter six, verse fifteen: “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore, they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the Lord” (quotes here and elsewhere from the King James Version). The term is used similarly in chapters eight, ten, eleven, and twenty-three where, for example, the speaker similarly insists that “Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings” (23:2). The term then makes further appearances in chapters 46, 48, 49 50, and 51, as visitations of vengeance become one of the book’s main themes.

Erpenbeck’s novel sets this meaning of the term against the meaning intended in Luke 1:39-45, a passage known in German as the “Heimsuchung Mariä,” in which the Virgin Mary visits her mother, Elizabeth, who, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses her daughter, affirming that “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (1:42). Erpenbeck relishes in the contradiction between these very different divine visitations, or between the promise of divine retributive justice and divine mercy. Her own account of what may be taken as supernatural visits begins with the description of a tract of land, and the granular process of its formation in Germany’s Brandenburg region, “approximately thirteen thousand years before the start of the Common Era.” As in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, time passes. Glaciers form and melt. Riverbeds sink, hills rise. And then, after time passes sufficiently, there are people and a village, and the land is divided into parcels. Sometime even later, when the novel opens, that land belongs to someone. A “Gardener” appears at the creation of this world in miniature. “No one in the village knows where he comes from,” Erpenbeck writes. “Perhaps he was always here.” This man “owns no land, not even a patch of forest, he lives alone in an abandoned hunting lodge at the edge of the woods, he’s always lived there, everyone in the village knows him, and yet he is only ever referred to by both young people and old as The Gardner, as though he had no other name.” He is a visitor of indeterminate age and features, who, once having appeared, looks after the land on behalf of its owners in every season and historical period, and under every form of social and political organization. He establishes himself as a presence in the garden-like world on the Märkisches Meer and makes the land bear fruit until, at the very end of the book, after everything that was raised from the dust returns to dust, “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.”

As someone who works in a garden, owns nothing, and periodically appears and disappears in a mysterious fashion, he seems at once both an Adamic figure and a divine interlocutor:

He fertilizes, waters, prunes, swaps out the frames in the beehives, extracts the honey, wraps the trunks of the fruit trees with cloth to keep the deer that leap over the fence from chewing the bark; the gardener weeds, harvests, rakes, burns, saws, splits, smokes out and covers beds with spruce twigs . . . . The gardener shows them the garden, the workshop, the woodshed, the dock, and the bathing house, as well as the apiary for twelve colonies and the extractor room and gives them the keys.

He performs this labor for each successive generation of owners, offering to those who acquire the land (both legally and illegally) the freedom of the place. No one but he seems to toil on the shore of the Märkisches Meer, but Erpenbeck makes it impossible to say whether his presence is benevolent or vengeful. On the one hand, if the Gardener merely performs the work that the proprietors expect of him, he cannot be said to be an agent of change in the lakeside world at all or to truly shape anything, whether for good or ill. On the other hand, since he is the only laborer on the land, no one else can be said to have more influence over what happens to it.

Alongside this potentially divine visitor, there is another. Erpenbeck opens the novel in the late nineteenth century, with a Brothers Grimm-like fairytale of “the wealthy farmer and his four daughters.” “Klara, [the farmer’s] youngest daughter, stands to inherit the bit of woods on the hill called Schäferberg.” One day, she meets an unknown fisherman, who comes to shore from the lake. His “hair is so wet that the water is dripping to his shoulders and running down his arms all the way to where his fingers are entwined with hers.” They sit together under an oak tree, where “the fisherman lays his head in the lap of the mayor’s youngest and as yet unmarried daughter,” and she “dr[ies] his wet shock of hair with her skirt.” It is a kind of Fall scene, though what happens next is unclear. The fisherman, in any case, seems bad news. Klara goes mad. She is locked up and disinherited. Subsequently, “Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara’s Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt an der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben, who enters his son’s name in the contract of sale in order to arrange for his inheritance, and finally Wurrach sells the third third, the part where the big oak tree stands, to an architect from Berlin, who discovered this sloping shoreline with its trees and bushes while out for a steamboat ride and wishes to build a summer cottage there for himself and his fiancée.” Wurrach’s virginal daughters, who all seem unvirtuous to him, are replaced by men. The fairytale sinks into history. The farmer “meanwhile, despite his advanced age . . . [is] chosen as the local leader of the Reich Farmers League.” Klara dies by suicide, and her body is discovered “entangled in the pine roots laid bare where the soil is washed away.” The supernatural fisherman is replaced by bourgeoisie fishers, pleasure boat riders, bathers, and vacationers. Did the visitor bring a blessing or a curse? Was Klara’s disinheritance the origin of all the losses subsequently experienced by the other characters? Erpenbeck asks readers to decide for themselves.

As the novel goes on to demonstrate, no one can remain on this land; to attempt to remain on it, even for a time, is to bring about someone else’s removal. In chapters like “The Architect,” “The Cloth Manufacturer,” “The Writer,” “The Subtenants,” and “The Illegitimate Owner,” we learn about the families of those who unsuccessfully try to inhabit a place they believe will always be theirs. In alternating chapters like “The Girl,” “The Red Army Officer,” “The Visitor,” and “The Childhood Friend,” we learn about those who merely live on the land for a time. More often than not, such individuals envy the paradisiacal peace of the two meadows and hill that border the lake. So, however, do the purported owners, who are always, when we meet them, already in the process of being forcefully evicted. As in Erpenbeck’s later novel, Go, Went, Gone (2015), which focuses on the plight of refugees in the European Union, the distinction between those arriving sooner rather than later to the Brandenburg region, or between those who own land and those who merely possess it for a time, turns out to be false. Human impermanence transforms all characters into temporary residents. So, too, does the original blessing or curse bestowed on Klara’s land.

On one of the three parcels, the “Architect” builds a house. It is a little paradise of stained glass, wood paneling, sumptuous decoration, and beautiful landscaping. “In the entry way . . . the birds on the door of the broom closet are flying, they’ve been flying there for a century, the flowers have been blossoming for a century, more grapes are hanging down, the Garden of Eden in twelve square chapters; he’d salvaged the door from and old farmhouse, its beauty makes you forget entirely about the scrub-brush, broom, bucket, dustpan and brush it conceals.” The cleaning implements do not disappear merely for having been hidden, however, nor can the history of Old Wurrach’s farm be erased. When we meet him, the architect is being forced to abandon the house he has built. He is burying the “porcelain from Meissen, his pewter pitchers and the silver” in the garden. He is fleeing. Reading between the lines, we learn that he was a colleague of Albert Speer and, very likely, a member of the Nazi Party (“the ironwork protecting the glass of the front door . . . is painted red and black”). Ironically, however, it is not his Nazi past that has caused his downfall, but his more recent experiences in the German Democratic Republic. The architect faces the choice of fleeing or being arrested because he has bought Western screws for a building project in East Berlin with his own money. “Time . . . is now expelling him from house and home,” despite his belief that his profession—and the magnificent work of art that is his house—“affixes” “life to the earth, [e]mbodying the act of staying put.” As the reader has understood by this point, the architect cannot stay put. Nor can his artistic gifts redeem him, nor his work outlast him, a notion on which Erpenbeck insists repeatedly throughout the novel. He must “leave the front garden through the little gate in the fence,” as he eventually does. Characters like the architect, who try to settle on the land, often in the novel turn out to be the most morally problematic (just like characters who are drawn towards water, towards fluidity, movement, and the state of the fisherman are often both the most innocent—though their innocence is always relative—and the most perceptive in their acceptance of the unavoidable state of dispossession). We wonder how the architect paid for his Eden. And as the book unfolds, we wonder, too, about how he acquired the bathing-house of his Jewish cloth-making neighbor, complete with the terrycloth towels still hanging inside.

This second family’s history also begins at the moment of loss. We find out their names, which the novel repeats over and over, recalling the genealogy of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Exodus: “Hermione and Arthur, his parents. He himself, Ludwig . . . Elisabeth, married to Ernst. Their daughter Doris . . . his wife Anna. And now the children: Elliot and baby Elisabeth.” They are the only named —and thus memorialized— family in the book. They are expelled from the garden according to the laws of Nazi Germany, much like the architect who profits from their expulsion is later expelled by the German Democratic Republic. The latter event happens first in the book’s chronology. Time present is time past. Or, as an elderly visitor from the USSR will put it in a subsequent chapter: “all these things exist simultaneously.” The book uncomfortably insists that all times resemble one another, and applies this principle to each generation whose fortunes it chronicles. Both the obviously innocent and the seemingly guilty are thrown out of their gardens. Each must “exit the front garden through the little gate in the fence and put the worn-out key in [his or her] pocket, even though soon the only thing it will be good for is to unlock air.” Variations of the phrase repeat as each generation of owners walks away with their set of useless keys, “a balance to be paid out to me.” The GDR writer, her granddaughter, the subtenant factory worker who once tried to swim to freedom, the other neighbors—all are expelled one by one. The Fall appears to happen multiple times, in different ways but in every family, as history bears down on those who attempt to inhabit private, personal Edens only to discover that habitation is the most difficult of conditions, made nearly impossible by one’s fellow men, and that, in fact, it is a notion that can only exist as a counterpart to that of expulsion. Bleakly, Erpenbeck suggests both that we build our temporary paradises out of deception, lies, willed forgetfulness, greed, self-involvement, and all the things kept hidden behind “the closet door” that one of the characters “believed as a child really led to the Garden of Eden,” and that true innocence is both impossible and of no help if one’s inheritance is cursed in biblical fashion.

Such ideas are underscored through symbolism, as each inhabitant of the land becomes associated with a particular type of tree. From “amidst the oaks, alders, and pines,” where Klara met her fisherman, to where her body washed up “entangled in the pine roots,” the garden becomes a blank canvas for each new generation of owners. The Gardener plants a cypress for the architect, a tree associated with mourning. The cloth manufacturer’s family plants a willow, a tree whose connotations are similar. The suffering architect’s wife, like Klara, is taken with “the pine trees [that] sway back and forth before the blue sky.” The GDR writer who moves into the architect’s house requests the Gardener plant a staghorn sumac and a maple. While she focuses on her art, which, like the architect’s, is shaped by her ideological leanings, the “apple and pear trees fail to recover from the fungal infestation. Spider mites attack the cherries.” Even away from the property, characters dream of trees. The pillaging Russian officer who visits the property remembers the girls in his village “chatting and laughing when they saw the boys leaning up against the linden tree.” The members of the cloth maker’s family who manage to escape to South Africa sit in the shade of eucalyptus trees, “which rustle louder than any other tree . . . their rustling is louder than that of beeches, lindens or birches, louder than the pines, oaks, and alders.” In South Africa, however, this family’s gardener “gets a big C stamped in his passport and is forbidden to enter public parks.” History bears down on the place called Moederstadt, or Mother City, where Eve’s error continues to haunt the inhabitants, just as it does in Germany. None of these trees are the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or, perhaps, all of them are. As in Genesis, chapter two, characters attempt to hide “among the trees of the garden,” (2:8) only to discover that no shelter is possible.

Aware of being a book written for an age when it continues to be easier to overlook the fact that any form of possession usually entails someone else’s dispossession, Visitation ensures its timeliness by focusing on a century when such forgetting was not only sanctioned, but state-imposed. In many ways, the novel is a cautionary tale about what happens when such forgetting takes place, though its deeper logic is undidactic. If the book offers any lesson at all, it is only that all ownership is illusionary; for Erpenbeck, there can be no possession, either in the individual sense or in the collective sense, because we are all the mortal inheritors of Adam and Eve’s original dispossession, and, as heirs to this event, are always bound to lose whatever we may set our sights on, especially if that something happens to be a self-fashioned Eden. A Marxist reading of the novel would insist, moreover, that whatever is built and possessed in the book’s artificial Edens is only built and possessed by virtue of others’ labor, whose own dispossession is always taken for granted, an assumption that, in each generation, becomes the first of all subsequent errors. In Visitation, as the title of the English edition suggests, such dispossession is the most basic human condition and homelessness an inescapable one, though, of course, this does not make those doing the dispossessing any less guilty. This uncomfortable premise is even brought to bear on symbolic modes of habitation, as Erpenbeck insists that even the house of artistic expression can be only a temporary abode: not only can it not help expiate guilt, but it also can never become a permanent home for its maker. It too, only stands by the grace of others’ work, and in the words of Paul Valéry, it can only be abandoned.

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