... wonders the child, "I must seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory. If I can." The old idiom "seeing is believing" is turned on its head: everything, the young girl muses, has turned into its opposite. "For me," she recalls, "words used to be stable, fixed in place, but now I'm letting them all go..." With such a poignant opening scenario Jenny Erpenbeck draws us immediately and deeply into a world that is both real and surreal. In a language that is both very poetic and at the surface undemanding, her story evolves into a profound, intricately structured and deeply affecting fictional memoir that reads at times like a fable, but then again also as a realistic account of a young girl's coming of age in extraordinary circumstances.
While the events surrounding the girl's sheltered life suggest a concrete time and place, even without naming the country, the author is at pains to illustrate conditions and responses that many a young person may have to confront in a country under totalitarian rule. A rule in which, at least for a while, the young may be protected from the realities outside their pleasant cage by "high walls" and where gunshots are being interpreted as "blowing tires". Her friend Anna presents her with the most outlandish explanations for everything unusual that occurs, some funny, some macabre, but delivered with deadpan expression. The girl wonders, however, and tries to bring the different experiences into some reality she can understand. Her father, who adores her and spends evenings playing with her, usually avoids a direct comment to such explanations that she passes on to him. She is too young to worry her pretty head about it.
As she grows, more strictures affect her directly: in school, where she tried to look like everybody else, within the larger family, after she overhears conversations in which she is labelled as "there is something inherently spoiled about her". Most irritating are the confines her mother, the woman with eyes "the colour of water", imposes on her without explanations or motherly warmth to offset the increasing distance between mother and child. The girl has many questions about what she observes and the people around her and those who suddenly disappear from her immediate environment. But while she shares her questions and reflections with us, the readers, she remains reluctant to confront those around her. Eventually, as can be expected, the house of cards that had been build around her collapses...
It is not easy to convey the beauty of Erpenbeck's writing, despite its sombre topic, without revealing too much of the detailed content of the novel. In a short ninety pages, she creates a rich and emotionally charged universe that reaches far beyond the individual's story. Erpenbeck, who herself grew up under the confines and strictures of the East German state, brings her experiences to bear, although more in suggested parallels and hints than openly. Most evident is the frequent use of lines from German folksongs, ditties, or children rhymes. In the context of this novel, the often crude violence in such ancient sayings, which, as children, we would have repeated without understanding the content, underscores her concern about language and the many meanings of words. Susan Bernofsky, Erpenbeck's translator, adds some context to these and other aspects of the novel. However, I would strongly urge the reader NOT to look at the afterword before reading the book.
Having read THE BOOK OF WORDS ("Wörterbuch" in German, which incidentally suggests more complex connotations than the English title) following her brilliant, more recent novel, Visitation, I was prepared for Erpenbeck's extraordinary ability to mould language and imagery to her very personal needs and vision. In her home country she is widely regarded as the most poetic and innovative writer of the younger German writer generation. While her language and style are not the easiest to connect to, yet, once you do, you very likely can become hooked. Her latest novel, "Dinge, die verschwinden" (Things that disappear - not yet available in English) pursues her deep connection with words and their meanings. Friederike Knabe]