Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

visitationTwo things stand out for me from reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s wonderful novel Visitation.

The first is a piece of German tax law from the Nazi era.  If you purchased property or other goods from a Jewish person who was being relocated and made a profit greater than what you would have made from the same transaction with a non-Jewish person, then you had to pay a special tax on that profit.  I found this to be a horrible little detail of history, one that is only revealed as a minor plot point in a novel.

The second thing that really struck me was the fate of Doris, a young girl in the Nazi section of the book.  When the soldiers come to take away what is left of her family, many of them escaped Germany earlier, Doris hides in a part of the house only children know about.  She stays there for days, until her thirst finally forces her to come out of hiding.  Because her family is already gone, she is forced to take her final journey alone.

Visitation is the story of a house and the people who lived in it throughout the 20th century.  The house is a grand one, located on the shores of Brandenburg Lake east of Berlin.  Because it’s a short novel, just under 140 pages in my edition, we don’t get the full life story of everyone who lived there.  Instead, we get a series of brief profiles, pictures taken at critical moments in life.

I can’t say that they add up to present a picture of a nation, but they may.  They certainly present a picture of thee 20th century spanning from just before the Weimar Republic until the years after Germany’s reunification.  But more than a portrait of a nation or a century, Visitation is the story of people.  It hist a certain primal curiosity: wouldn’t you like to know the story of those who lived in your house before you did, or those who will live in your house after you have left it.

I haven’t done Visitation justice.  I hoped to make you want to read it so you would come to love it as much as I did.  It’s going to make my top ten favorite reads list this year–I’m certain.  And, I’ll be keeping my copy to read again someday.


This counts as book 2 in the 20 books of summer reading challenge

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