Besides a single chapter Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is situated on a piece of land commonly known today as the Mark Brandenburg in present-day eastern Germany and western Poland. On the land beside a lake formed ‘eighteen thousand years ago [as] the glacier’s tongues began to melt,’ several families’ lives unfurl, bridging the German Empire of the late nineteenth century to the German reunification of the late twentieth century. This strategically located piece of land is witness to all the quiet horror of twentieth century Europe.
In an epigraph Jenny Erpenbeck quotes George Büchner, ‘As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in the same place, one after the other.’ Many families live on this piece of land, from the mayor and daughters of Klotthof farm, to the summer vacationers who dwell temporarily in the thatched cottage. The sole permanent resident of this piece of land is The Gardener, the silent observer doggedly undertaking his seasonal chores oblivious to the accretion of German history.
Set in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II the most lacerating chapter of Visitation is based on letters written by Doris Kaplan, to whom the novel is dedicated, to her parents. From her hiding chamber Doris recalls summers at the vacation house by the lake and asks,”When you die at age twelve, do you also reach old age earlier?’
The prolonged acknowledgements at the end of the book are at variance with what seems a compact novel, but Erpenbeck writes succinctly and with resonance, carefully layering the story as history is arranged, layer by layer, on the lakeside piece of land. It is a work of considerable beauty.