We’ve heard of novels “of place”. Well, here’s one. Literally. The place is a house and its grounds on a lake in Germany – what was Germany, then East Germany, then Germany again. The house of course has people, families, coursing through it. In the prologue, Erpenbeck traces the formation of the land (not once upon a time, but “approximately twenty-four thousand years ago…”) In the time of the Weimar Republic, a rich farmer lives in the house along with his four daughters. Like a short story in the midst of the novel, through the daughters stories, the rituals of marriage and death are told. Each of their stories are relayed in brief succeeding paragraphs: Grete, Hedwig, Emma, and Klara. The landowner begins to break up the property. Then, beginning in the 1930’s, the house is owned by a Jewish family. But the political climate is such that the family is forced to sell off some of their property in a futile attempt to gain exit visas. “The architect” buys this piece of property on the cheap for a nice financial gain (even after he pays the “6% De-Judification gains tax”). Erpenbeck sheds no tears in her descriptions – she leaves it to the reader to see the horror of the proceedings.
Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved and their household goods are auctioned off.
Erpenbeck can also take your breath away with other descriptions of liquidation. Here, an Anne Frank like figure had been hiding in a house in the Warsaw ghetto and is discovered by the Gestapo. She is shot. But after she is, Erpenbeck back tracks and gives us a brief glimpse of this girl – a kind of epitaph.
For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high-bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.
This is just brilliant. The taken back, the taken back…like a film, hand rewound. Uninventedness. Phew!
But just as stunning as Erpenbeck can be with her holocaust descriptions, history itself marches on dispassionately. With his Nazi connections (Albert Speer), the architect’s fortune’s turn when the German Army occupies the territory after the war.
His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height, width, and depth, it was always his business to build things high, wide and deep, but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from his house and home.
The architect knows at one point that his days are numbered. He keeps wondering if he has swum in the lake for the last time.
Nor does he know whether the German language contains a verb form that can manage the trick of declaring the past the future. Maybe at some point in early September. The last time, it wasn’t yet a last time, that’s why he didn’t take note of it. Only yesterday did it become the last time. As if time, even when you grip it firmly in your hands, can still flail and thrash about and twist which way it will.
There are many such examples of a kind of repetitive, rocking voice. A lulling voice, never more so than in the recurring chapters labelled The Gardener. Exiles from Russia return to their homeland after the war as the country is divided.
Through all the changes, there remains The Gardener, who serves them all: pruning, cutting, planting, mowing, chopping, stacking. Erpenbeck writes of The Gardener in nearly mythical language, that “no one in the village knows where he comes from. Perhaps he was always there”). The Gardener gives a sense of continuity through all the changes, but eventually he too fades away, and ultimately the house is demolished. So this is a real “historical novel” in the true sense. A history of a country (Germany) as filtered through a house on a lake and the lives who passed through it. Inventive and compelling as literature, riveting as history.