Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > Visitation

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
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Mar 18, 11

bookshelves: librarybooks
Read from March 08 to 16, 2011

‘Until the time comes when a different house will be built on this same spot, the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.’

The central character of this novel is not a person, but a place. And through this place, a grand house and its grounds by a lake in Brandenburg, we see a history of 20th century Germany unfold. A succession of inhabitants, each dislodging another, reflects the political upheavals of the times in which it is set. The gardener provides continuity in this story: he tends the grounds, attending to the work required by the constant ebb and flow of the seasons. Politics may influence occupancy and history, but nature has her own rhythm and requirements.

‘No one in the village knows where he comes from.’

Twelve people, including the gardener, make their homes in this house. Each makes an impact on the house, but each is a temporary visitor. The architect and his wife who create the house include some delightful touches: a small bird carved into the balcony; a hidden closet; and panels depicting the Garden of Eden. Consider the Jewish family who owns the property in the 1930s: they are forced to sell while they wait for visas to enable them to leave the Third Reich.

Generally, the narrative remains with the house and its current occupants. Sometimes it shifts, as it does in a chapter covering the fate of Doris, one of the exiled Jews, to an abandoned house in the Warsaw ghetto.

‘But as long as this sentence still stands, her name is still Doris, and she still exists.’
‘If no-one knows she exists any longer, who will know there is a world when she is no longer there?’

At the end of World War II the house is requisitioned by the Russian army, who make their own mark on it. And ownership? Who can claim ownership in the turmoil after World War II? Different regimes have their own definitions of ownership. But through all of this, almost to the end of the novel, the gardener follows his routines patiently. We never hear from him, and never know how he might feel about the changes taking place around him. And when it becomes clear that his increasing frailty prevents him from maintaining the property to prevent its ruin, it is hard not to see this as a sign that the house will not long outlive the gardener. His continuity of care is a different from of ownership and of respect.

I found this a profoundly moving and beautifully written novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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