The latest translation of the German author and theatre director Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, Visitation, is a philosophical thesis on permanence/impermanence filtered through the lens of a small lake and neighborhood near Berlin. This lake, called Brandenburg, is the setting for the entire work. More specifically, the reader is introduced to a singular plot of land, from its very formation to the present day. Most of the book is constructed as a series of closely intertwined short stories, each presenting the viewpoint of a character inhabiting or interacting with this particular piece of land.
The novel opens with an incredibly wide scope, a risky maneuver that could give off an overly detached impression. But Erpenbeck knows what she’s doing. Simple yet precise, her words melt this detached concept of transience with a strong emotional connection to each of the characters, and even the landscape. Visitation’s preface, describing the geological creation of Brandenburg Lake, is the most compelling opening I’ve read since Blonde:
For a time this lake would hold up its mirror to the sky amid the Brandenburg hills, it would lie smooth between the oaks, alders and pines that were growing once more, and much later, after human beings appeared, it was given a name by them: Märkisches Meer, the Sea of the Mark Brandenburg; but one day it would vanish again, since, like every lake, it too was only temporary—like every hollow shape, this channel existed only to be filled in completely some day.
Not only does the preface serve as an exacting bit of writing that forces the reader to sympathize with a lake, it also provides a crucial frame to the following interactions and individuals, all of whom view Brandenburg Lake and the surrounding neighborhood as an immortal observer of their dramas. The ending impression is that, while nothing is permanent—even the ground on which we stand—permanence would be an undesirable state. Our temporary lives, our visitations give meaning to our joys and keep wounds from forever haunting our memories
Although the individual characters are less important than the wider themes, they ground the novel in relatable triumphs and tragedies. You’ll care about the fates of the Gardener, the Architect’s Wife, the Red Army Officer, and everyone else who lives and survives Germany through the early 20th century, WWII, Soviet occupation, the GDR, and reunification. Given the numerous plot twists, I’ll refrain from diving too deeply into the intrigues of life around Brandenburg. What I will note is how the trajectories of each character mirror the life of the land and lake presented in the preface, morphing until they disappear. The reader is left to question the meaning of the characters' existences, or existence at all. This theme is especially poignant in the perils of WWII, demonstrated here by the story of a Brandenburg area girl:
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…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.
Visitation is a heady trip into the fleeting position of people and places, and how we learn to live with this reality. Morose yet uplifting, this complex work will be sifting through your mind long after putting the book down. I’ll leave you to unpack one of Erpenbeck’s numerous small-but-mind-blowing passages that exemplifies Visitation’s titular theme:
When the new person is to begin, he can only grow out of the old one. The new world is to devour the old one, the old one puts up a fight, and now new and old are living side by side in a single body. Where much is asked, more is left out.