Haunted by Ghosts: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

…but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less and less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find those dandelions, these larks.

“No poetry after Auschwitz, ” Adorno had declared famously. At the same time however, great tragedy has often created sublime art. Thus, it is no wonder that the most moving passages in the book Visitation are those reflecting the thoughts of a young Jewish girl, Doris, hidden in a cupboard by her mother and waiting for her return. As the wait grows longer and darkness spreads, little Doris’ (she is all of twelve) thoughts get frantic. And then, just before she is shot, because she is considered an inconvenience that might interfere with things running smoothly,  Doris recalls a beautiful moment of love and laughter:

Nothing is nicer than diving with your eyes open. Diving down as far as the shimmering legs of your mother and father who have just come back from swimming and now are wading to shore through the shallow water. Nothing more fun than to tickle them and to hear, muffled by the water, how they shriek because they know it will make their child happy.

Midway through the book, this chapter titled The Girl was so heart wrenching that I felt suffocated and had to close the book, take a few deep breaths, walk round the room, swallow past the lump in my throat, and only then could I open the book once again.

Through the history of a house built near a lake, the author Jenny Erpenbeck presents the history of Germany in a microcosm. The story proper begins in a fairy tale manner and ends in a technical description of demolition, effectively demonstrating the nightmarish descent of Germany from a land of fairy tales to a land of destruction and devastation. Beginning somewhere at the fag end of the 19th Century, the house  (or the woods where the house is built) sees a succession of owners, tenants, workers, neighbours that make the novel meander through the first world war, the rise of Nazism, the second world war, the march of the Red army, the division and the reunification. Stories and characters are repeated. One doesn’t quite know at times which character is being talked about. While the human landscape changes, the natural landscape, the lake remains as it was at the beginning of its creation, reflecting the follies of mankind.

Not surprisingly, the novel deals with setting up roots and uprooting, often violent and forced. Thus, characters ponder on the sense of what can be called home.

Home! he’d cried out like a child that would give anything not to be seeing what it was seeing, but precisely in this one brief moment in which he hid his face in his hands, as it were, even the dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things. H-o-m-e. Which thou must leave ere long. After he had swum his way through a brief bout of despair, the German official had applied to retain his post. those others, though, the ones who had fled their homeland before they themselves could be transformed into monsters, were thrust into homelessness by the news that reached them from back home, not just for the years of their emigration but also, as seems clear to her now, for all eternity, regardless of whether or not they returned.

Questions are also posed as to one’s sense of belonging. As you are stripped of your belongings, do you lose your privilege of belonging?

Everything had kept getting less, they’d had to leave behind more and more baggage, or else it was taken from them, as though they were now too weak to carry all those things that are part of life, as though someone were trying to force them into old age by relieving them of all this.

Alongside though there is also an affirmation of the human spirit, that can endure and survive, and finally emerge a winner:

Which means that in the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.

The book is not lenghty but extremely dense. At times, I found the going tough and wished that the writer had adopted a more easy (read conventional) way of conveying things, and the epilogue seemed heavy-handed but there are certain sections which will haunt you for ever. One of these days, I’ll like to read the book -at a much slower pace – again.


First Line: Approximately Twenty-Four Thousand Years ago, a
                 glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of 
                 rock that is nothing more than a gentle hill above where 
                 the house stands.

Title: Visitation

Author: Jenny Erpenbeck

Translator: Susan Bernofsky

Original Language: German

Original Title: Heimsuchung

Publication Details: London: Portobello Books, 2010

First Published: 2008

Pages: 150


Visitation is available on the Net. I was lucky enough to win it as a giveaway during the German Literature Month.


Book(s) with similar theme(s)

Train to Pakistan (with photographs by Margaret Bourke-White)


Read and Reviewed as part of German Literature Month hosted by  Caroline and Lizzy.

Submitted for the following Challenges:


Off the Shelf

2 thoughts on “Haunted by Ghosts: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

  1. Wonderful review. It's interesting how each person seems to stop for breath at another point in the book, at least that's how it seems from those reviews I read so far. I have only read the first ten pages and it is dense indeed. I need to be in the right mood to read it but I certainly will.


  2. Thanks Caroline.Can't comment for others, but I was completely choked up at that point. Do read the novel and note where you stop for breath. 🙂


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