To read the German author Jenny Erpenbeck at her best is to observe the process by which small things are made visible. As if on a microscope’s slide, the miniature comes into focus, but in her hands, magnification is a kind of diminution of the eye; we the readers are shrunk down, distorted and inserted into an alternate universe. Erpenbeck can summon the familiar horror of genre films and Gothic novels, and the abject and paralyzing fear instilled through powerlessness and careless brutality. Sometimes her stories take the shape of parables untethered to conventional logic or historical reference. Other times they are attached ambiguously to historical incidents and periods, where the horror takes on a grainy, documentary edge: the obscene ravages of World War II, both from within and from the vantage of retrospective cultural trauma; life in the GDR, with its paranoia, enforced silence and abrupt disappearances; torture in the Argentine dirty wars of the 1970s and ’80s, and the German presence in postwar South America.
Erpenbeck’s reputation in Germany as a writer of hypnotically sparse, even pointillistic lyricism is closely related to her acute sense of the horrific, in which human pain becomes insignificant against an indifferent cosmos. This indifference to pain, grief and destruction—as well as detachment from established grounds of right and wrong, the just and unjust—creates and sustains its own unpredictable, self-sufficient logic, and it is the motor that has powered the inventiveness of her prose, from The Old Child and Other Stories (1999) to Visitation (2008), translated elegantly by Susan Bernofsky into English in 2010.
Erpenbeck’s mode of storytelling is related to the cruel and wondrous logic of fairy tales, a cultural reservoir of myths both comic and horrific. Fairy tales crystallize movements and motives within a culture. They also generalize, casting toward the universal. Likewise, Erpenbeck’s fiction reveals, as if by accident, how individual anguish is everyone’s anguish. Deliberate violence against powerless victims exists, she reminds us, always in the shadow not just of a dark history of similar acts but in the shadow of human finitude—of mortality, blindness, accidental loss and the frailty of memory. Our powerlessness in individual scenarios, she shows, is a proxy for an essential, inescapable smallness.
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In recent years, an internationally visible body of German writing has disturbed our understanding of how the most brutal episodes of the twentieth century influence and disrupt the present. The popularity of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the notoriety of Günter Grass’s Crabwalk and Peeling the Onion, the critical stir over W.G. Sebald’s and Herta Müller’s writings and the films of Michael Haneke: all can be understood as examples of this latest wave of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—the German word for the seemingly never-ending obligation to come to terms with the past. This literature relies on strange and uncomfortable layerings of fiction, nonfiction and historical fiction to slant and deepen accepted histories with alternate perspectives. The consequences are bleak and unsettling, as the writers dwell on the slippery nature of guilt and the insoluble remainder of history’s materials. Erpenbeck’s technique is comparable and, in her best efforts, perhaps closest in spirit to Müller’s, but her real object seems to be to come to terms with the present. Erpenbeck projects the grotesque excesses and accidents of a lingering past sideways into the local objects and events that preoccupy her; she does not offer lessons learned from history but rather uses history as a way to map the vicissitudes of the present, even as it transpires.