‘Wörterbuch’ (‘The Book of Words’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

IMG_5489A writer who has made frequent Women in Translation Month appearances on my site is Jenny Erpenbeck, with today’s post her third consecutive August review.  She’s one of my favourite contemporary German-language writers, and while you’ll have to wait a while until her latest novel makes it into English, there’s plenty of her earlier work available (either from Portobello Books in the UK or New Directions in the US).  Her most famous books are probably the IFFP-winning The End of Days and the earlier novel Visitation, but my choice today, a shorter early work, is right up there with those two🙂

*****
Wörterbuch (The Book of Words) is a novella narrated by a young girl living in a sunny country somewhere far, far away.  In this land of eternal sunshine, the girl and her family are clearly part of a ruling class, with the mother and daughter meeting their father in his imposing workplace at the end of each working week:

Mein Vater arbeitet Tag für Tag in einem Palast, der von außen vollkommen weiß ist.  Mein Vater sorgt in diesem Palast für die Ordnung.  Tatü.  Wände weiß, Säulen weiß, Freitreppe weiß, die Sonne blendet vom Haus her, als sei das Haus selber die Sonne, nur die Bäume zur Rechten und Linken des Hauses sind dunkel, und niemals bewegt ein Wind ihre Blätter.  Tatü.  Ich frage mich, ob die Fenster nur aufgemalt sind, weil der Palast immer so still dasteht, drinnen herrscht Ordnung, sagt meine Mutter, mein Vater sorgt für die Ordnung, und weil ich hinter den Fenstern nie jemandem sehe.
p.14 (btb, 2007)

My father works day in, day out in a palace which, on the outside, looks completely white.  In this palace, my father makes sure everything is in order. Nee-nah.  White walls, white columns, white steps, the sun is reflected so much it is as if the building itself is the sun, only the trees to the right and left of the building are dark, and no breeze ever moves their leaves.  Nee-nah.  I wonder whether the windows are simply painted on because the palace always looks so quiet, inside order reigns says my mother, my father makes sure everything is in order, and because I never see anyone behind the windows.
*** (my translation)

This idea of keeping everyone in order has fairly sinister undertones, meaning the reader is on their guard from the very start of the story.

The narrator passes her life in a bubble, surrounded by members of her own class, occasionally visited by her relatives who like to talk about ‘the old country’ (and the baffling phenomenon that is snow), yet even in this stifling, sleepy atmosphere, changes begin to become noticeable.  People move on, shops close down, and the girl slowly realises that the outside world is very different to the one she shares with her parents.  However, none of these small hints will prepare her for the truth when reality finally penetrates her sheltered existence – what if everything she’s ever been told is a lie?

Wörterbuch (thankfully not given the title Dictionary!) is another excellent story from Erpenbeck.  Last year I read her first novella, Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Old Child) which, while interesting, didn’t quite grab me.  However, this follow-up book has the same eerie feel but works much better.  It’s written in a clever, disorientating style, progressing slowly but surely until the excellent twist towards the end of the story.

The girl, our limited window into this world, is a complex character.  At times, she’s cynical and sharp, questioning the environment around her, weighing up the words that have importance in her life (hence the title) and using this word play and imagination to make sense of it all.  Yet she’s also rather naive, believing what she’s told by those close to her when she should be having doubts.  Certainly, the reader finds it hard to believe the stories she’s told, including her school friend’s explanation about the ‘fireworks’ outside.

The setting for the story is deliberately vague, but given the climate and the repressive regime it’s not hard to hazard a guess as to where the action takes place.  Wörterbuch charts the city’s gradual decline, which happens little by little, almost imperceptibly, even though it happens over a relatively small number of pages.  Shops start to close down, followed by the suspension of the train system.  The grass in the girl’s garden grows owing to the gardener’s ‘holiday’, and the girl’s nurse decides to leave virtually overnight.  Still, at least the statues of her father’s friends remain in the streets…

This slow pace means that when things do happen, the contrast is startling:

Bei einem Halt auf der Rückfahrt steigt vorn eine Frau ein, hinter ihr kommen zwei Männer.  Als sei es ein Tanz, überholen die beiden Männer sie rechts und links, auf der Mitte des Gangs, der Bus steht mit laufendem Motor und wartet, die Frau sieht die Männer und will sofort umkehren, zur vorderen Tür wieder hinaus, da packen die Männer die Frau bei den Haaren, die Frau fängt an zu schreien, die Männer ziehen die Frau an den Haaren nach hinten… (p.49)

At a stop on our return journey, a woman gets on at the front, two men get on behind her.  As if it were a dance, the men overtake her both left and right in the middle of the aisle, the bus is waiting with the motor running, the woman sees the men and immediately tries to turn around and get off again through the front door, then the men grab the woman by the hair, the woman starts screaming, the men pull the woman backwards by her hair… ***

Immediately, both narrator and reader are confronted by reality, realising that the comforting cocoon the girl lives in might be a little more fragile than it appears.  The parents’ fumbling attempts to cover the incident up simply add to the sense of unease.

Wörterbuch consists of short sections, with a mix of abrupt, spiky statements and longer WITM Logorun-on sentences, and the information gaps between sections lend the story a slightly unnerving air.  There’s a constant mix of actions and thoughts, with dreams also woven into the text later in the piece, and with such a tangle of ideas, the reader is never quite sure of the reality of the situation.  Erpenbeck also uses a lot of repetition, meaning certain words and phrases return to tease the reader throughout the book.  A good example of this is ‘Mein Vater kennt sich mit den Strömungen aus‘ (‘My father knows a lot about currents‘), a phrase of which the true (horrific) significance only becomes apparent at the end of the story.

I don’t really want to say too much more about Wörterbuch as it’s a fairly short book, and the direction the story takes is part of what makes it work.  It’s been out in English (in Susan Bernofsky’s translation) for a while now, but I suspect it’s been somewhat overshadowed by her more recent work.  Anyone who liked The End of Days should enjoy this one too, so if you are an Erpenbeck fan, I’d definitely recommend giving The Book of Words a go🙂

*****
#WITMonth Bonus Shot – Number 2
Welcome to the second of my #WITMonth Bonus Shot features, in which I suggest some further reading ideas connected to the post (and country) of the day – links, where applicable, are to my reviews🙂

Of course, your first stop should be the Erpenbeck books I mentioned above, but there are plenty of other female writers from Germany to check out.  One of my favourites is Judith Hermann, even if she’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  Her short-story collection The Summerhouse is definitely the place to start, although her first novel Where Love Begins is also a good read.  Other contemporary writers I’ve tried include Judith Schalansky and Julia Franck, while Juli Zeh is another whom bloggers have praised highly.

Going back a little further, you can’t go past Christa Wolf (my favourite of hers would probably be Kassandra), and Anna Seghers is another big name, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Transit when I read it last year.  Finally, I mustn’t forget Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, another of Peirene Press’ little gems and a very popular piece of contemporary German literature🙂

And how about you?  Any German favourites?  If so, let me know🙂

8 thoughts on “‘Wörterbuch’ (‘The Book of Words’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

    1. Max – It’s a good book, even if others have given it more praise. It’s almost a partner piece to ‘The End of Days’, in that ‘Visitation’ focuses on a place over time while ‘The End of Days’ focuses on the person moving around (and hopefully not dying…). What I didn’t find so effective was the overly episodic nature of the book (around ten or so different stories), with ‘The End of Days’ having only five, and working much better.

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