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Posts from the ‘15 Books Project’ Category

Don Mee Choi’s “Geopolitical Poetics”

I am a foreigner who writes in English
Because English is a foreigner like me
I write prescriptions for the injured and the sick
Scribble republic!

from “A Little Confession”

For several decades, poetry has become increasingly visual. It has been about words on a page, letters in space, words & images in relation to each other. Just pick up Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books) and let the pages flip through your fingers. Yes, a few of the pages look like poems “ought” to look like. But most of the pages don’t. There are photographs, tiny ones and full page ones. Drawings. A good deal of the book is written in solid blocks of text that look like prose and a long section that is laid out in the form of an opera libretto. And then there are the lines written in Korean characters, or the excerpts from musical scores (music is essentially a foreign language for me and, undoubtedly, for many readers). Finally, like more and more poetry and fiction titles do these days, the book ends with several pages of explanatory notes, which mostly provide the sources for the many quotations and references the poet has used throughout Hardly War.

The other thing that flipping through Hardly War with your fingers will suggest—and that reading will confirm—is that Choi has carefully thought out this as a book. This is not a collection of assorted random poems on various topics. It’s clear from a quick glimpse at the book that Choi has given herself an awful lot to juggle, so she uses her own biography as the spine on which to hang everything, along with a bare bones history of Korea during roughly the same years—1950 to 1968. Choi was born and raised in Korea, before eventually settling in the U.S. Her father was a photojournalist who covered the war zones across Southeast Asia and in Korea. She uses some of his photographs in the book, and she turns his camera into one of the characters in the opera libretto, “Hardly Opera,” which closes out the book.

Hardly War is a carefully orchestrated sequence of poems, prose poems, and images. It opens with a prose poem “Race=Nation,” which introduces the reader to the poet and her father, along with a few sentences about her idea of folding geopolitics into poetry. It basically serves as her elevator speech on twentieth century Korean history: occupied by Japan from 1910-1945; under the control of the U.S. military government through 1948; authoritarian president who had to be overthrown by a student-led revolution in 1960. South Korea still has not shaken this history off its back even now and we all know what North Korea is like.

“Race=Nation” is followed by “A Little Glossary,” which includes images that aren’t explained, languages that aren’t translated, and the word “gook” which isn’t defined. When we get to the end of the book, the Notes will tell us that these paired photographs show the Taedong River Bridge in Pyongyang, Korea in November 1950 (left) and December 1950 (right), before and after its destruction. Choi’s father, with a camera around his neck, is on the left. The mention of “5 petals” refers to the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of South Korea. On this page, Choi carefully and succinctly sets up the key devices that will she will use throughout the book: pluralingualism, uncertain equivalencies, non-translation, and repetition (of images, symbols, and words).

The first real “poem” of the book is “A Little Menu,” a very simple listing of the foods that an American G.I. might have had while stationed in Korea (e.g. wieners, canned fruit, crackers, soluble coffee, etc.), ending with the line “What did General Fatty eat?”. “General Fatty” is what Choi calls General Douglas MacArthur, who initially led the United Nations military command in Korea. Choi’s confidence in using humor—even silliness—is one of the reasons I have thought about Hardly War time and time again since I first read it nearly six years ago. After seeing black-and-white photographs of soldiers, war-damaged bridges, military equipment, and malnourished or orphaned children, we don’t expect poems that read like nursery rhymes or children’s taunts. This is her “hardly war,” her “faint history<‘ made up of the voices traditionally drowned out by the din of battle. In daring to contrast her “paper closet with real paper dresses in it” against “THE BIG PICTURE. War and its masses. War and its men. War and its machines.’, as she writes in “Woe Are You?” Choi knows that paper dolls and poetry won’t win wars, but that they can help change the way that history is told.

And changing history is her agenda. She wants to correct the stereotyped image of Korea which has been handed down across several generations now, defined almost exclusively by the American experience of the Korean War, even though the war ended nearly seventy years ago. She references two of the Hollywood moviesPork Chop Hill (1959) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962)that helped to perpetuate the colonialist trope of of the Korean conflict as the opposition between heroic G.I.s and the native Koreans, who were seen as inept, untrustworthy, and very likely Communists, and who were frequently referred to as gooks, the derogatory word that Americans often used for Asians and other “lower” races. Choi wants to tell Korea’s “own faint history in its own faint language.”

Geopoetics. . . involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

Readers who are bilingual in Korean and English will undoubtedly read Hardly War differently than readers like me who know only one of the languages. But I think that Choi uses incomprehensionwhich is the first step toward demonization of the Otherintentionally throughout Hardly War.

The book’s narration constantly shifts between sections written in the voices of children, parts written in the pidgin English of Koreans, sections mimicking the pseudo-neutral voice of a slightly gung-ho journalist or newsreel narrator, and a loony version of an opera libretto in which most of the characters are flowers. But what is consistent about all of the voices in Hardly War is Choi’s peculiar sense of humor. She borrows wordplay tactics from nursery rhymes and other forms of children’s poetry to give her writing a slightly sinister innocence. “I was cheerily cherrily red and merely merrily washed my face in the yard and looked up at the stars. I decided to go alone as far as I could go south, do and do and to.” At the beginning of the photo/poem “With My Brother on My Back / I Was Narrowly Narrator” (shown below), Choi writes: “I was narrowly narrator / yet superbly so.” The turnabout from modesty to confidence in a seven word sentence is something I find astonishing.

I wrote about Hardly War when it came out in 2016 and I have incorporated a few bits and pieces from that review in this updated and enlarged piece. Choi’s next book, DMZ Colony, also from Wave Books, won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Wave Books deserves huge kudos for the vision, support, and dedication they show to all of their authors.

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Don Mee Choi. Hardly War. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

This is book number 4 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

River

Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.

The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo.” “Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.

But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.

On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.

Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”

Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”

One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?

“the town came closer on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river…”

At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.

Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.

Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.

A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.

With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.

At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.

After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.

There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.

Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.

What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?

Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”

The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.

Three years ago I wrote about River in two posts in 2018 and I read the book rather differently then. Here is part one and here is part two of that review.

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Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.

This is book number 3 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

The Man Who Dies: Robert Pinget’s “Passacaglia”

How do I write about Robert Pinget’s gem of a book Passacaglia? The dilemma is that Pinget has woven his novel about passion and guilt so tightly knotted up that to unwind it is to start releasing spoilers. The first problem that Pinget presents us is that his narrator has a great deal of trouble telling a very simple story about a man who dies. He doesn’t tell the story once, he tells it more than a half dozen times and each version is different. Thus the book’s title. The word passacaglia (or passacaille in Spanish) originally referred to the type of interlude music that Spanish street musicians would strum between the dance music they were performing. These interludes were usually variations on a theme played over a bass line or an ostinatoin other words, they were a persistent motif. Pinget is using the man’s death as the variations on a theme. The reader’s challenge is to figure out the persistent motif, the theme behind the death.

Here’s the first version of the man’s death from page one. The setting is the outskirts of a remote French village, at the well-to-do farm dwelling of a man referred to simply as “the master.” (Just think of him as a sort of gentleman farmer; he doesn’t seem to work very hard work at farming.) The time is vaguely in the middle of the 20th century. A local peasant, hired as a sentry because of the master’s “mania,” is checking on him and has just peeked through the masters’ window and has seen him “apparently distinctly . . . put the clock out of action and then sit there prostrate in his chair, elbows on the table, head in his hands.” Soon thereafter, the master will be found dead on the nearby dung hill. Note the phrase “apparently distinctly.”

Some six or seven pages later, in the second version, we are told that the village mayor and doctor have found the master slumped over, dead at his desk, having knocked a book to the floor. Remember the book.

The narrator’s inability to tell this story straight is being strangely echoed by the master’s inability to finish writing his memoirs. The master has been writing his memoirs in a bookyes, that bookbut he’s at a certain point where he has hit a wall. In the mean time he’s doing what many writers do in that event, he’s diddling with previous entries. “Working on marginal notes.” Over and over he tries to write further in his memoirs, but no. He will tell himself “source of information deficient” or that his memory is experiencing some sort of “hiccup.”

Throughout Passacaglia, Pinget demonstrates how language can be used to hide something, even our very own memories. We are given multiple versions of the master’s death to chose from, as if this were a lineup down at the police station. And we see the master hiding some memory away behind his ability to weave words into puzzlingly beautiful, but almost meaningless sentences, sentences which make him feel as if he has a genuine excuse not to pursue his memoir into certain territory.

Pinget’s poetic language may not be for everyone, but I happen to adore it.

Afterwards hours of pondering over all these snippets, there was nothing left on the page of memoirs but blots and graffiti, his life had emigrated elsewhere.

In the elms or the pine wood, in those carcasses everywhere, scintillations, nocturnal silences, dispersed, in disorder, irreparable, the book open at the old-fashioned illustration, the clock that doesn’t go, infinite disarray, words adrift like so many disavowals, pursued even into his dreams, the only history he would have now would be written, his only breath would be literary.

It was perhaps at this moment that the poultry dealer appeared at the gate, towards evening that is, the master became calmer, he asked the fellow to sit down and he let him go on about his obsessions, the doctor apparently said watch your liver, come and see me.

Blots and graffiti.

Other themes would emerge from disordered nerves. Working on marginal notes.

When the farm-hand had left the barn, it might have been half-past eight, night was falling, the last glimmer in the west, the line of the forest almost black, the terrace was deserted and the house had all its shutters closed, you could hear the frogs down by the marsh, it had been a hot day for the season.

Of that dreary, monotonous year.

There’s a kind of Where’s Waldo hide-and-seek when it comes to picking out what’s critical to know among all these phrases. Just as the master is hiding something from himself, Pinget seems to be hiding things from his readers. It feels like essential facts are buried in insignificant-looking passages or they get lost in flowery poetic language. For instance, it’s very easy to miss the moment when we are told that the master has been telling the doctor “the story of his death that he had imagined in detail, amplified over the years, tragic or touching according to the evening, by the fire, the bottle of spirits on the table.” In other words, all of these variations on the master’s deaths are just the late night ramblings that the master makes up when he and the doctor sit drinking in front of the fireplace. (Just as it’s easy to miss it when the master and the doctor are described as “intimate.”)

This is not an example of the “unreliable narrator” we see so often today. Part of what is going on is due to the fact that Pinget is sowing uncertainty in his reader’s mind as a matter of principle. He doesn’t want us to keep basing everything in our lives solely on reason. He wrote to his English translator, “Don’t bother too much about logic: everything in Passacaille is directed against it.” But Pinget is also showing us the lengths that the master will go to evade his sense of guilt over a child whose story only emerges toward the end of the book, although hints about this aspect of the master’s life have been laid since the early pages. The master, it seems, had “adopted” a child. “I was stuck with the child, how old could he have been, about fifteen, I always thought of him as ‘the adopted child,’ feeble in both mind and body, his mother entrusted him to us not knowing what to do with him, we didn’t either, we gave him little jobs to do which he always made a mess of.” There was only one thing the master has insisted on.

that I should soap him myself in his tub every Saturday or more or less, with neither calendar nor passion I sometimes made a mistake and I felt less alone at those moments, I have his skin under my hand, I soap him all over without exception from A to Z which naturally took us by way of P, to tell the truth it’s less a chore than a pleasure, or if in my haste to be less alone I soap him twice a week attributing my miscalculation to the absence of a calendar.

Then one day the boy dies after making what the master describes as a “wrong move” with a chain saw, and the master is not the same after that. But is never clear if this is an accident or a deliberate act of self-mutilation. This is the incident that the master keeps reimagining over and over in his memoirs, unable to move forward. He also keeps rewriting his will late at night in rambling prose that recalls, in shorthand, bits and pieces of the book’s plot.

I the undersigned in the cold room, hemlock, clock out of action, I the undersigned in the marsh, goat or bird’s carcass, I the undersigned at the bend in the road, in the master’s garden, maleficent old woman, sentry of the dead, sentry, scarecrow, in a van on the route deviated by the evil eye, plaything of that farce that is called conscience, no one, I the undersigned midnight in full daylight, overwhelmed with boredom, old owl, magpie or crow . . .

Depending on your point of view as a reader, either one of the more magical or more confounding aspects of Passacaglia is Pinget’s ability to bend time. Passages that begin at one moment in time segue invisibly a page or two later into events that are clearly in the past. The book’s final paragraph suggests, yet once again, that the master dies, “found deceased on the dunghill.” Or is this just another of the master’s late night tales by the fireplace?

I last read and wrote about Passacaglia in 2011. I clearly didn’t quite know what to make of it then and should have read it a few more times. One of the pleasures of rereading a book is finding passages missed the first time around. For example, on the second page, Pinget signals to the reader an essential clue to his book. He tells us that we need to pay attention to everything that alludes to the master’s past. (I have omitted the story of the master’s past and how he came to “adopt” the boy out of my commentary in order to not give away all the spoilers.)

The story would seem to have begun a long time before this, but talk about prudence, talk about vigilance, it looks as if only two or three episodes have been revealed, and that with some difficulty, the source of information being permanently deficient, that almost inaudible murmur interrupted by silences and hiccups, so that you might well have attached no importance to it and considered the whole thing started at the time when the clock was put out of action. Which side to take.

The reader has two basic choices with Robert Pinget’s Passacaglia: to read it straight through and enjoy it strictly for the beautiful writing, without worrying too much of having an accurate view of what is really taking place; or reading the book several times while parsing every sentence carefully. (It’s short, only 94 pages.) Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. But even the second approach won’t remove every ambiguity. In some novels, confusion is the story. Which side to take, indeed!

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Robert Pinget. Passacaglia. Translated from the 1969 French original by Barbara Wright. My copy is the out-of-print edition published by Red Dust in 1978. The only English version of Passacaglia currently in print is part of the volume Trio, from Dalkey Archive Press, which includes two other short novellas by Pinget. It’s also the Barbara Wright translation.

This is book number 2 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Visitation

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation is a hugely ambitious book for its 150 pages. Rather than follow a family through generations as a traditional bildungsroman might do, Visitation follows a single tract of land through its various owners and occupants during the twentieth century. In a brief Prologue, we learn how the ice age, which lasted some 24,000 years, shaped the rivers, lakes, and valleys of the Wannsee area west of Berlin, which is where this piece of property lies. Compared to the span of an ice age, the century covered by this novel is a mere heartbeat. And in light of the catastrophic weather events, infestations, and wars that will sweep over this property during the twentieth century, the idea that anyone might actually “own” a piece of the Earth feels a lot like hubris. As Erpenbeck suggests, the property’s owners and occupants are merely paying this property a visitationas if they might be at their own funeral. In fact, the book’s original German titleHeimsuchungsuggests the kind of visitation that drops down out of the blue, such as an infestation of locusts, a plague, or the visitation that occurred to the Virgin Mary.

The central plot of Visitation really gets underway in 1939 when a nameless architect from Berlin and his wife purchase the tract of land from its Jewish owners, Arthur and Hermine. “He’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land. And this was by no means a paltry sum. They’d never have managed to find another buyer in so short a time,” reasoned the architect, who, incidentally, hid his own Jewish heritage from the Nazi hierarchy and managed to become one of Albert Speer’s most trusted architects.

After the architect purchases the land from Arthur and Hermine, the couple find themselves unable to emigrate before Germany’s borders are closed to Jews. Erpenbeck’s omniscient narrator briefly describes their final months of constant struggle with the Nazi bureaucracy. Here’s how we learn of their demise:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside Łodz, 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 auctioned off.

The architect, on the other hand, has imagined the fate of Arthur and Hermine differently. “By buying the property, he’d helped the Jews leave the country. No doubt they went to Africa. Or Shanghai. For better or for worse.”

Meanwhile, the architect has divorced his wife in order to marry his stenographer, and he designs for them a second home on “their little bit of sod” on the lake. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to enjoy it for too many years before they are forced to flee when the Russian army enters Berlin in 1945. They are able to return at the end of the war and repair the damage, but after endless tangles with the new East German government he gives up, and the architect and his wife decide to defect to the West. On his final morning on the property, the architect looks out across the lake and tries to remember.

When he will have swum here for the last time is something he no longer knows. 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 at will.

After they defect, title is then taken over by the socialist government of the new German Democratic Republic, which then leases it to a writer and her husband, who are permitted to occupy and fix up (but not own) “abandoned” property. Because the writer had been a communist, she and her husband had gone into exile during the Nazi and the war years, spending their time mostly in the Soviet Union. But after the war they returned to Berlin so that she could write. She had wanted her words “to transform the German barbarians back into human beings and her homeland back into a homeland.” Instead, what she found was a socialist government that operated on favoritism and elitism, which readily subverted its own laws and ideals for money and the powerful.

Throughout every change of ownership of the property there has been one constantthe gardener. The gardener keeps his head down and tends to the land, blind to the religion or politics of the property’s owner or occupant. “The gardener doesn’t speak much, and he’s never been heard to say anything at all about events in the village, whether someone has drowned in the lake, a smallholder has secretly changed the position of a border stone, or Schmeling has knocked out the American boxer Louis in the twelfth round.” The gardener is clearly designated to be someone who stands apart from all of the other characters in the book, neither a victim nor a perpetrator. He stands for the property itself. In an interview (see below), Erpenbeck has referred to the gardener as “the true owner” of the property, “because of his work, and because of his real connection to the place which is founded again and again, day by day, by physical doing, physical work.” Unlike the others, he hasn’t bought his way onto the property through money or power. It disturbed me that the gardener remained a silent, obedient land manager in the employ of a high-ranking Nazi architect for years, but in her interview Erpenbeck makes it clear this was not to be held against him.

The events that happened on or affected this one tract of land during the twentieth century were traumatic, to say the leastwar, a brutal occupation, rapes, decades of totalitarian regime, plagues of insects, lawsuits. But, as in her recent novels The End of Days (2016) and Go, Went, Gone (2017), Erpenbeck has opted for a poker-faced narrator, who can sound eerily like a Nazi or East German bureaucrat at times, a narrator who sticks to the facts and statistics and is blind to the emotional toll mounting all around.

Erpenbeck’s books are always concerned with the ways in which language is used to entrap us, as well as how we use language to liberate ourselves. The law is one such place, and Visitation includes several pages of faux legalese. These sections would be comic if we knew they weren’t being used to confuse and bully someone and ultimately rewrite the ownership of the property.

Reference to the registry of deeds will be required to determine with sufficient certainty. Registry of a first priority property lien. In the present settlement. Further: Upon fulfillment of the present settlement all claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby. Further: All claims with regard to the object of dispute are hereby satisfied and further litigation is hereby. Is hereby excluded.

There are moments when Erpenbeck’s characters find themselves thinking about how language has a different kind of potential. In this example, we are peeking in on the thoughts of an elderly woman referred to as “the visitor,” who is the mother-in-law of the writer:

The dandelions are the same here as back home, and so are the larks. Now, as an old woman, she has grown into the sentence that her husband always said to her forty years before. The dandelions in her village were the same where he grew up, in the Ukraine, from where he’d come vagabonding along, and the larks too, that’s what he always said. . . Surely her husband’s great-grandparents had at some point or other uttered this very sentence another seventy or eighty years before. She wonders whether the sentences go out looking for people to utter them, or whether its just the opposite and the sentences simply wait for someone to come along and make use of them. . . Probably, she thinks, the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or other, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeingfactored over the length of a lifetime, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experiences of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a long row of dominos, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here, in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this gong was already calling her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a blue-patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still be said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?

At the end of the book, the house that had been built on the edge of a beautiful lake, the pride of a Berlin architect, has just been torn down and “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” The newest owners of the property, who have won their lawsuit, want to design and built a new house. From scratch. But the law has the final wordon how the house must be properly torn down.

. . . Care should be taken to minimize the vibrations when the demolition is carried out so as to reduce the environmental burdens of dust and noise and prevent cracks from developing in nearby buildings.

As it turns out, the intrepid Internet researcher can discover that much of what Erpenbeck wrote in Visitation was based on her own family history and her own experiences at a summer vacation home, which the family lost when Germany was reunified. During a Between the Covers podcast produced by the publisher Tin House (you can read the transcript here), Erpenbeck revealed that Visitation was the result of extensive research and nearly all of it was based on real people and real events. She also spoke about what the reader should think upon finding this out. “When I, myself, am a reader, I’m also interested to not only read the story but also to know the story behind the story, like the biography of the author and how come that he wrote this book or she wrote this book. I think you can be happy if someone doesn’t realize that it is based on research or on true stories and you can also be happy if you can answer the question with a, ‘Yes, it’s based on something’. . . But a story is always something that is made up.”

Ω

Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky.

This is book number 1 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

The Vertigo 15 Books Project

I have been pondering how to mark the fifteenth anniversary of Vertigo for some time. I finally decided that the most appropriate response was to assign myself to read some more books. But this time, I would commit to re-reading books. I have selected the fifteen novels and books of poetry that really stood out to me during these years and I am going to read them again in the months to come. To make the cut, each book had to have struck me both emotionally and intellectually in a memorable way. Each book had to have some real word magic. And I asked myself if these were the books that came to mind while I was reading other books. Were they my benchmarks? Thinking along those lines left me with a list nearly twice as long as I wanted. So I gave myself some additional criteria and thought about the types of books I have always wanted to champion on Vertigo, books that most people might not run across or opt to read on their ownbooks in English translation, books by writers considered “tough” to read, and, of course, novels and poetry with photographs. That helped me whittle my list down to fifteen titles. After I re-read each book I will write about it here. I’ll be posting about the first book on my list very shortly. The full list won’t be revealed until the very end.