Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The Old Child & Other Stories” and “The Book of Words”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The Old Child & Other Stories” and “The Book of Words”

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In Jenny Erpenbeck's fiction, girls are tabula rasa to be instructed step by step by teachers and fathers (state substitutes) to be handmaidens. They are empty vessels to be filled, captives in training to serve. In one story, a teenager arrives at a home for orphans without name or memory to identify her, only an empty bucket that she carries. In another, a woman's lover imprisons her by burning the soles of her feet and tells her that he first became aroused when a dentist's drill caused a young girl to scream. Only grandmothers, servants and sometimes friends, hold onto a counter past that the present tends to erase in order to insure its hegemony.

"The Old Child" (the title story of the New Directions 2005 publication of her stories) takes place in Dresden, some years after the fire bombing of the city at the end of World War II and a few years after East Germany has become a model Communist state. The 14-year old girl who gives the story its title is placed in a home for orphaned children, but unlike other children in the home, she does not want to be adopted. She has entered the home to escape a world that she refuses to acknowledge. "What a blessing it must be to be given up on," she thinks. At the home, she turns what are often considered marks of degradation—silence, resignation, abjection—to her advantage until, inexplicably, she becomes tired, so tired that she cannot stay awake. The home puts her in the infirmary, where she sleeps most of the day—another refusal of the world—until its administration decides that something further must be done and she is taken to a medical center.

In the hospital, doctors bring her back into the world as a 30-year old woman with a past (the hospital has found her mother). "Her attempts to stop time in its tracks has failed." (Doctors, like teachers and lawyers Erpenbeck suggests, do less to help patients than they do to preserve the health of the state.) Like Gunter Grass's Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, who stops his growth at age three because he does not want to grow up into the adult world, the old child, like Oskar, has no choice but to be an adult.

Governments fit themselves into the past like hands into gloves, but the fit is never comfortable. In the Latin American country that The Book of Words (New Directions, 2007) describes, gunshots are believed to be tires blown out; the parents of a friend are on a vacation trip from which they will never return. The market is closed. The market re-opens. Trains stop. Trains begin, although the first train to commemorate the re-inaugural of train travel is blown up by a terrorist bomb, and once again trains stop.

There are more ominous signs that cannot be explained away: the wet nurse's daughter has had her hands cut off, a friend's sister and her lover complete a suicide pact ("they won," the friend asserts). The father of the girl who is the book's protagonist is a major figure in government. He is imprisoned in a change of government, returns to power with another one. In prison, he tells her how to torture, what its effects are, and why it is done in terms as precise as those of a surgeon.

The girl describes whatever happens using the same terms, no matter the circumstances: "Those who, and then their friends, then the ones who remember them, then all who are afraid, and finally everyone." Except each time she repeats the phrases, she drops words, replaces commas with periods. "And" dropped. "Then" removed. "All" gone. Period period. In a totalitarian society Erpenbeck argues, the government cleanses society of what should not be there, but the girl who has been taught by her father to use its language, uses it to tell a different story.

"Teach the petrified forms how to dance," Karl Marx argues, "by singing them their own song." In her subversive counter practice, Erpenbeck uses the language of totalitarianism to speak through it. Erasure becomes signature. The blank page the refusal of "other people's dreams." Silence speech. Erpenbeck gives numbness its voice. Less singing a song than sung by it.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.