She locks the door and then walks past the giant rhododendrons to the left of the house, …. she unlocks the gate, locks it again behind her, exits the front garden through the little gate in the fence and puts the worn-out key in her pocket, even though soon the only thing it will be good for is to unlock the air.
The girl saying goodbye to a beloved house on the edge of the Märkisches Meer in Berlin, could well be the author herself. The seed of Visitation planted by the loss of her grandparent’s summer home after it was reclaimed following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In real life the author was displaced, just like the characters in her latest novel, by the trials and tribulations of twentieth-century German history.
The fictional house in Visitation is built in the 1930’s. The architect takes advantage of the times to expand his property by paying his Jewish neighbours half the market value for their neighbouring property. He and his wife ride the storm of history – the Nazis, the Russians, the Communists – until he makes a critical misjudgement on a government project. He is forced to leave for the West. The new residents, exiled Germans returning from Russia, leave the house to their granddaughter who is forced to sell when the property is reclaimed following reunification.
In essence all who live there, are merely visitors. History does not allow them to stay. Some evictions – you could call them that – are crueller than others and Erpenbeck’s prose, intense and concentrated, does justice to the pain and in places, trauma of the separation. The action seldom moves from the house and when it does, it is history that is forcing the issue. We follow a young man in his attempt to swim his way from the East. We follow a displaced Jewish family on their various routes to the final solution. Ultimately into the Warsaw ghetto and with the fate of the granddaughter, Doris, Erpenbeck distills the inhumanity of the holocaust into 12 pages of perhaps the most pitch-perfect prose I’ve ever read. The taking of Doris’s life invalidating all the love, care, education and effort of raising the child in the first place.
For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, …. all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.
It is telling that throughout the novel only a few characters are named, most are reduced to their function: the architect, the architect’s wife, the gardener. However, in giving personal names to the entire Jewish cast, Erpenbeck is effectively rehumanising the dehumanised.
After Doris is killed, we return to the house. Elements of Doris’s story are cleverly replayed when the house is requisitioned by the advancing Russians at the same time as an army of potato beetles advance from west to east, diametrically opposing the march of history in a way that eludes the human characters.
Yet one person remains constant: the gardener. In alternating chapters Erpenbeck tells us of his efforts to maintain the property and its grounds and, thus, his attachment to the ground transfers to the reader. As the gardener ages and becomes infirm, so too the house. By the time the architect reclaims it, it is a shadow of its former self. The decision to sell is a dispassionate one.
Not for the girl with whom this review began. Nor now for the reader. More echoes of the past as the girl hides in the closet while overhearing the estate agent showing the house to prospective buyers. All the loving touches designed into the fabric of the house dismissed. There are things of greater interest.
She says: Just look at the bird here on the railing. Hm, the clients say. It’s a loving touch, the real estate agent says. The clients don’t respond. The architect, says the real estate agent, worked with Albert Speer on the Germania project. Really, the clients say, now that’s interesting.
The obvious point of comparison is with Simon Mawer’s 2009 Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room. Visitation doesn’t contain the unnecessary digressions of Mawer’s work and is, thus, a more concentrated, though a far more challenging read. Thankfully more accessible than Erpenbeck’s previous novella The Book of Words which was like piecing together the picture in a cracked mirror. (Though Visitation may not be quite as accessible to those unfamiliar with German 2oth century history.) I was relieved to find that I didn’t have to work quite so hard this time around. Even so, the lack of names and the non-chronological narrative occasionally left me disoriented, needing a few paragraphs to work out where I was in time and in whose story. This is a pet peeve of mine and the explanation of why an otherwise stunning and brilliant piece of fiction doesn’t earn a perfect 5-stars.