‘Geschichte vom alten Kind’ (‘The Old Child’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

IMG_5332Welcome, one and all, to another month of German-language delights, thirty days of November which combine to make up German Literature Month 🙂  For the fifth year in a row, Lizzy and Caroline are hosting the event, with giveaways and readalongs galore, and I (as always) will be doing my best to share lots of my favourite books and writers with you all.  And speaking of favourite writers, today’s post kicks off the month with a book from a writer I’ve been spending a lot of time with this year – los geht’s!

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Old Child) was her first published work, a story which gets off to an intriguing start:

“Als man es gefunden hat, stand es des Nachts auf der Straße, mit einem leeren Eimer in der Hand, auf einer Geschäftsstraße, und hat nichts gesagt.  Als die Polizei es dann mitgenommen hat, ist es von Amts wegen gefragt worden, wie es heiße, wo es wohne, die Eltern wer, das Alter welches.  Vierzehn Jahre alt sei es, antwortete das Mädchen, aber seinen Namen wußte es nicht zu sagen, und auch nicht, wo es zu Hause war.”
p.7 (btb, 2001)

“When they found her, she was standing in the street at night with an empty bucket in her hand, on a shopping strip, and said nothing.  When the police then took her back to the station, she was formally asked what her name was, who her parents were, what her age was.  The girl replied that she was fourteen years old, but she couldn’t say what her name was, nor where she lived.” *** (my translation)

With no visible means of identification, the girl is soon dispatched to a children’s home where she is to spend most of the rest of the story, living with other children with no place to go.

The institution proves to be a place the girl feels at home in, but that’s not to say she fits in there.  She’s a figure that stands out, tall, ungainly and unlikeable, and her only talent seems to be that of blending in quietly, at times to the point of invisibility.  The more we see of her, the more we are forced to believe that there’s something not quite right about her – but what could it be…

In a big Erpenbeck year on the blog, this is the fifth of the writer’s books I’ve read.  After rereads of Heimsuchung (Visitation) and Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days), I tried her non-fiction work Dinge, die verschwinden (Things that are Disappearing) for Women in Translation Month before recently looking at her latest (untranslated) work, Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone).  While those books are the work of a more experienced, mature writer, Geschichte vom alten Kind is recognisably an Erpenbeck story, a novella where her idiosyncratic style is already evident.

The institute, the main setting of the book, is both school and home for the children.  Unlike the others, though, the girl wants to be there, and enjoys being locked away from the outside world.  She feels safe in the prison-like atmosphere, able to blend into the background in class, often simply overlooked by the teachers when they look around for someone to ask questions of.

While the teachers may ignore her presence, the students are rather more perceptive.  From the start, they’re unsure what to make of her, other than realising instinctively that there’s something strange about her:

“Bei genauerem Hinsehen gewinnt man den Eindruck, als häufe dieser Körper ohne jeden Sinn und Verstand alles, was in ihn hineingegeben wird, einfach an, als wolle er aus fehlgeleitetem Geiz nichts wieder herausrücken, als wäre dieser Körper eine einzige riesige blinde Anhäufung, ein Materiallager, zu dessen Verwertung aber die Gebrauchsanleitung fehlt, man hat den Eindruck, daß es eine verkommene Masse ist, zwar lebending, weil ja ein Körper zwangsläufig lebendig ist, aber eben doch auch irgendwie tot.” (pp.58/9)

“On closer inspection, you get the impression that her body, for no reason, simply piled up everything that was shoved into it, as if, from a misplaced sense of greed, it refused to let go of anything, as if this body was one gigantic, random pile, a storage space, one whose instruction manual was, however, missing, you got the impression it was an abandoned mass, living, yes, because bodies are necessarily alive, but still somehow dead.” ***

The tendency of children to take advantage of weaknesses leads them to test the girl’s patience, stealing her few belongings and pushing her over in the courtyard.  Eventually, though, they learn to appreciate her main quality – her almost supernatural capacity for ignorance and silence -, one which comes in very handy in the world of the playground.

Geschichte vom alten Kind is a very strange book, one where you’re never quite sure of the GLM5eventual goal.  The central figure is eerily inhuman, leaving the reader to wonder whether there’s much going on inside her head, or whether she’s even human.  For an Anglophone reader, the German actually exacerbates this effect, because with the word for girl (‘Mädchen’) being neuter in German, the pronoun used most often is ‘es’ (‘it).  While this is simply normal usage in German (and the English translation, as far as I can tell, uses ‘she’), to me it fitted nicely with the slightly impersonal feel to the description of the girl 😉

The writing is repetitive in places, deliberately so, reflecting the soothing routine of the institute and the girl’s desire for an ordered, peaceful existence.  Later in the piece, the language develops a little as the girl gradually becomes aware of her surroundings, and we move (occasionally) from the third-person point of view to a first-person viewpoint, allowing us, however briefly, to see what she sees, rather than what others see of her.  This all happens very slowly, and you do wonder whether we’ll find out the truth of her origins before the end of the (short) story.

As a book, it doesn’t match up to some of her other works, but it’s still a must read for Erpenbeck fans.  It shows some good writing and a hint of the control of atmosphere that marks her later work, the reader always sensing that the simple style belies the command over the story.  Better still for Anglophone readers, the English versions, translated by Susan Bernofsky, come with added extras.  The American version (from New Directions) contains several stories from her German collection Tand; the British edition (from Portobello Books) bundles Geschichte vom alten Kind with another novella, Wörterbuch (The Book of Words).  Sadly, that’s not the case in the original German, so I’ll have to track those other books down at a later date…

…for next year’s German Literature Month, perhaps 😉

6 thoughts on “‘Geschichte vom alten Kind’ (‘The Old Child’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

  1. Mmm I loved this when I read it in fact I don’t think anything I’ve read from her since has matched this the use of the child to represent the country as a whole I found great


    1. Stu – It’s an interesting read, but not quite up there for me. Having tried five of hers now, though, I’m probably going to end up reading everything at some point 😉


  2. Glad you reviewed already so many of Erpenbeck’s books, Tony. She has a unique voice and is one of my favourite contemporary authors. I still remember when I read this first book of hers soon after it was published in German, I had the feeling that we could expect a lot from her future books – and she didn’t disappoint with any of them so far. I should definitely re-read her and write some reviews myself 🙂


    1. Thomas – I’m hoping to get to the other two books before too long – I was *very* lucky to get a review copy of her latest book recently, and I’m eager to see how that will go down in English when it eventually arrives 🙂


  3. Voice is so important in Erpenbeck’s work. What I remember of reading this in English is the way the language develops as the girl (presumably) gets older.
    I read it alongside The Book of Words – possibly my favourite of hers.
    I hadn’t realised that the ND version contained 5 short stories. Does that mean I’ll have to get that as well?!


    1. Grant – Yes, the voice does develop as the facade starts to crack…

      Re: the versions, I’d have a check (use the Amazon look inside feature!), but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happened, which would be pretty annoying… There is a German story collection (‘Tand’), and some of those are bundled with ‘The Old Child’ in the ND version. Why the UK & US versions differ like that is another story 😦


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