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 visitation—as if they might be at their own funeral. In fact, the book’s original German title—Heimsuchung—suggests 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 constant—the 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 least—war, 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 fleeing—factored 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 word—on 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.”
Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky.