Book Review - Not a Novel

When the Berlin Wall fell, German author Jenny Erpenbeck was oblivious. In her essay, ‘Homesick for Sadness’, she tells us: “I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep, the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to pieces.” Erpenbeck was initially sceptical about East Berlin’s new found liberty. “
Freedom to travel? (But will we be able to afford it?) Or freedom of opinion? (What if no one cares about my opinion?) Freedom to shop? (But what happens when we’re finished shopping?)” Later she admits that her experience of this “transition” was what prompted her to write.

Erpenbeck’s refreshing frankness and incisive thinking permeate this collection. Written over two decades, Not a Novel includes snapshots of a happy childhood in the German Democratic Republic, literary criticism on writers she admires (including Hans Fallada, Walter Kempowski, Thomas Mann and Ovid) and meditations on her own work as a writer. We learn of her love of folktales, how their “intensity” and “harshness” infiltrate her own fiction, and how music (she worked as an opera director) taught her “to give shape to the gaps between the words, those mute spaces, to give rhythm to the silence between the words. The pauses are part of the text, they may be the finest part…”

The essays explore the subjects - walls and borders, truth and silence, identity and memory and the limitations of language - present in her fiction while her autobiographical accounts give valuable context. Despite having slept through a nation’s collapse, Erpenbeck swiftly realised: “Everything that had been called the present up until then was suddenly called the past.” And so she erected another border inside herself, “made of time, between the first half of my life which was transformed into history by the fall of the wall…and the second half, which began at that same moment.”  She clearly enjoyed a happy childhood. In ‘John’ we learn about the lovesick schoolboy who would phone her and, refusing to reveal his identity, would quote Beatles lyrics. Years later, when Erpenbeck requested her file from the Stasti, she discovered that they had intercepted John’s daily record of who had arrived and left her apartment block. In ‘Open Bookkeeping’ her mother’s death in 2008 is reduced to a poignant list of everything Erpenbeck has to find a home for, the accounts she has to close, the refunds that come in and those that don’t.

In the first of three lectures for Bamberg University, Erpenbeck explores the impetus behind her debut, The Old Child, where a young woman struggles to adapt to life in a children’s home. She claims: “If the language that you can speak isn’t enough, that’s a very good reason to start writing…Whenever I have not been able to understand something, have not been able to capture it in words, that’s when I’ve started writing.”  

Erpenbeck’s views on totalitarianism, inhumanity, silence and powerlessness coalesce in her later essays and recent novel. Go Went Gone describes Germany’s treatment of African refugees who face Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy. In her 2018 essay, ‘Blind Spots’, she contrasts the harsh treatment of refugees today with the joyous acceptance of East Germans when the wall came down and asks: “why do we still hear laments for the Germans who died attempting to flee over the wall but almost none for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years, turning the sea into a giant grave?” Erpenbeck’s anger is palpable and this collection reveals both her creative process and the injustices that drive her to write.

Originally published by the Observer