Fiction: Collective Memory

Jenny Erpenbeck , The Book of Words translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 2007)

Jenny Erpenbeck is a writer who uses abstraction to explore a subject that is becoming widely traversed in German literature: the ancestry of German National Socialist rule (the most controversial example being memoirists who have sought to humanize relatives belonging to the Nazi party). The Book of Words, first published in German in 2005 and translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, is entirely a work of fiction, and given a veiled, unnamed setting that is most likely Argentina, a place where German immigrants happen to have settled for over 100 years and where Perón’s administration allegedly gave safe haven to war criminals. But the book is not about the Nazis; it is about memory, and the virgin consciousness of childhood, and the child narrator is growing up in a climate that reflects neither the nationalist fervor of Nazi Germany nor the pseudo-Fascism of Peron, but the haunting and methodical repression of Argentina’s Dirty War, and even East Germany, where Erpenbeck was raised.

The mother is frightening to Erpenbeck’s unnamed narrator, and puts her in the care of a wet nurse, from whom she feeds until much later than the normal age. And her father, who, though kind and affectionate, later reveals to her that he works as a torturer for the state and that her mother’s father killed babies in a fictitious treatment of WWII Germany. These admissions are matter-of-fact, and contrast with the bulk of the story, where in a child’s mind a gunshot becomes a blown tire, another child’s suicide is imagined as play-acting, and fighting in the street is done in the name of love for a contested woman.

To say a word over and over is to render it meaningless, absurd. To find a word’s meaning reversed by unexpected revelation, as experienced by Erpenbeck’s narrator with the words mother and father, is to kill what it connotes, “stabbing memory with memory.” And when she questions the meaning of the word toes, she wants to cut them off. The writing in this novella reflects the style of repetition of words and images in Erpenbeck’s short stories, published as a collection titled The Old Child (New Directions, 2005). Sentences repeat as the narrator sorts through memories. She asks her parents, her wet nurse, and her schoolyard friends many questions, and over the course of the book their responses blend confusedly until they are deconstructed. There are no chapters or section breaks, though each paragraph is separated by a double stop, and the longer ones are punctuated by punch lines that unnecessarily break the continuity. The choice marks this reader's sole reservation; that the work reads in such a way as to allow itself to be put down every few pages, when it should be read in one sitting.

Reflecting on the tendency to find the human behind the repressor, the father character exposits: “It’s easy to say what’s wrong…if you aren’t one of those who bear the responsibility. It’s always easier to break things down than to build something up.” Though Erpenbeck’s young character appears on the surface to agree with his words, inside she rebels, as he continues: “A body…decomposes with the help of worms and wood lice when placed quite normally beneath the earth, but one might also…transform it into a diamond. Into something that will last. And that’s a great deal more interesting…Yes, she says, it is.” It’s the words worms and wood lice, not diamond, that she focuses on, as Erpenbeck chooses to address the rot of mortality rather than self-righteousness.

Contributor

David Varno

DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.

ADVERTISEMENTS