Top positive review
8 people found this helpful
Two superb novellas from one of Germany's best contemporary writers
on 30 August 2011
This book collects Susan Bernofsky's translations of two novellas or short novels, originally published in German in 1999 and 2005 respectively. Neither is appearing in English for the first time.
Jenny Erpenbeck has attracted attention recently in the English-speaking world after Bernofsky's translation of 'Heimsuchung' (as 'Visitation') was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A reader familiar with 'Visitation' will find the atmosphere of these two earlier novellas similar. If you are completely new to Erpenbeck, the most obvious point of similarity will be that both 'The Old Child' and 'The Book of Words' are constructed around child protagonists (though the former is a third-person and the latter a first-person narrative). In both cases the simplicity and transparency of a child's world is slowly revealed to be illusory: these are children with whom something is terribly wrong.
Erpenbeck has a real talent for establishing the reader within the comfortable familiarity of the everyday before allowing brief glimpses of the 'unheimlich' that gradually accumulate into inescapable horror. She works at least partly within an older German tradition of folk and fairy tales that mix mundanity with the bizarre in a similarly disconcerting way. Stylistically, her prose is both simple and highly wrought, exploiting the incantatory properties of repetition and the ironic possibilities of the multiple meanings of commonplace words. She rewards the reader's attention: these short books are not be rushed.
Less immediately obvious is the fact that she is a deeply political writer. Brought up in East Germany, she understands the way in which the political penetrates every aspect of social existence, especially those from which we wish it to be absent.
The two novellas deal with specifically modern German themes of memory and forgetting, guilt and complicity, identity and refusal of identity, but their resonance is not geographically restricted. Although 'The Old Child' is set in Germany, outside a city that may or may not be modern Dresden, 'The Book of Words' takes place in an unnamed South American country in which it seems that certain German exiles and tendencies may have found fertile soil. Erpenbeck's gaze is the polar opposite of the averted eye: it is a gaze that demands that we do not look away, and insists that even innocence has a price.
[235 pages, not the stated 192, including a brief Afterword by the translator about 'The Book of Words'.]