Erpenbeck, a promising new writer from Germany, grew up in the city of East Berlin. So it should come as no surprise that the spectre of both the Nazi and Stasi eras haunts her third book – and second novel – Visitation. Like WG Sebald, she invites the ‘reemergence of memory,’ recounting Germany’s dark 20th-century past.
Visitation is structured around 12 characters who inhabit a ‘forest property’ on a lake outside Berlin. Each character comes to life in precise vignettes. The reader will have to work hard to get hooked into the stories within each story, but as with Bolaño’s Faulkner-inspired novellas, her unconventional storytelling eventually lures the reader into her terrifying world of love, loss and regret.
At times, it feels like reading a police procedural set during World War II: ‘The Red Army officer forces his way between the clothes, his revolver pointed into darkness, to the back of the closet where he encounters a body that mutely begins to put up resistance when he reaches for it.’ But a narrative begins to emerge, and it becomes apparent that Erpenbeck’s prose is not only deliberate and heartfelt, but also brutal and disturbing; some scenes are difficult to get through.
Before Erpenbeck began to write stories, she worked as a bookbinder, as well as a costume and prop designer in musicals and operas throughout Berlin. Her inclusion of ultra-technical details and repetition sets up speed bumps, but when read aloud, her writing reveals a clarity that is both vital and enchanting. You get the sense that thanks to the fine work of German literature scholar Susan Bernofsky, none of Erpenbeck’s quirky subtleties were lost in translation.