BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

VISITATION by Jenny Erpenbeck is a truly original and unusual novel, the work of a bold young writer. Born in 1967 in East Berlin, Erpenbeck has published two other books, THE BOOK OF WORDS and THE OLD CHILD & OTHER STORIES, and has won numerous literary prizes. In VISITATION (published by New Directions; translated by Susan Bernofsky) Erpenbeck makes a house standing on the forested banks of a lake outside Berlin her protagonist.

In a prologue, the author describes how the lake came into existence during the Ice Age. Then, thousands of years later, the glacier retreated, hills and fields began to emerge, followed finally by human beings who built a farm house and garden. Erpenbeck focuses on this idyllic piece of property for the next 145 pages, keeping it front and center while telling the story of the family that inhabited it.

In Erpenbeck's skilled, deft hands, the farm house becomes a microcosm of contemporary East German history, commencing with the Weimar Republic and proceeding through the Hitler, Communist and post-Berlin Wall eras. The farmer and his wife and four daughters experience war and bombings, followed by the Russian invasion and occupation, then the fall of Communism. Love, death and birth also take place here--betrayal, avarice and duplicity as well. The only constant in all this is the presence of The Gardener, a stoic man of the earth who, one presumes, represents the very soul and conscience of the German people.

But even he falls victim to history. Rather than work for the real-estate speculator who has bought the property and intends to cash in by sub-dividing it, The Gardener simply vanishes one day and is never seen or heard from again.

The book's epilogue describes, in a matter-of-fact way, what finally happens to the farm house: "For a period of two weeks, first five men and then three are at work on the property. They stop for breakfast between 9 and 9.30 a.m, and for lunch between 12:00 noon and 1:00...When they are finished tearing down the house and only a pit remains to mark the place where it once stood, the property suddenly looks smaller. Until the time comes when a different house will be built on this same spot, the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more."