Language becomes distorted in a totalitarian state. Victims thrown from planes are “flotsam” to the oppressors, “black-clad billowing angels” to young children who bear witness to their fall into the sea. The definitions have changed – words have “silent halves ….. dragging them down”.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s unnamed narrator hides the real story, simply because she does not know it. A privileged young child, she lives with her parents in a well-appointed house. She is educated in a school with high walls. Glimpses of the reality outside her shelters come via the experiences of the servants or the incidents she observes travelling to and fro. A women is dragged from the bus by her hair, the aforementioned angels fall from the sky. The naivety of the children is confirmed by their interpretation of the noises they hear:
Anyone who wants is now permitted to shoot pigeons, Anna says, as a series of shots rings out once again beyond the walls of our schoolyard. Because they destroy buildings with their shit. That’s a filthy word, I say. But that’s the reason, Anna says. And dogs. The wild ones. Sit, I think. Lie down. They multiply just like rats, I say to Anna. That’s stupid, Anna says.
Space and time are distorted too.
Like the narrator, the country remains anonymous. The hot climate, the ocean and the repression are reminiscent of Pinochet’s Chile or Argentina’s dirty war. Yet there are reminders of Erpenbeck’s native East Germany – the land of the Stasi. Our narrator’s mother is German – her eyes the colour of water, cold …. and, tellingly, the child hates her.
This small volume is a challenging read. Scattered and stylistically diverse vignettes reflect the society like a broken mirror. Characters come into focus, flit through the frame and disappear only to reappear as uninvited apparitions at a magical realist birthday party. The narrator’s voice never matures and the timeline remains clouded, until after 10 years the time has come for regime change.
Reality bites suddenly. Fleeing with her father, our author is apprised of the facts. Words shed their half-meanings and the cracked images and blurred edges become fully focused. The past decade is revealed in all its horrific reality. An unfortunate move on the author’s part in my view. For it subverts her artistic intention of writing a story “that goes on to the right and the left and above and below the edges of the picture“. Sometimes the unspoken is best left unsaid.