I bought this book early in the year, thrilled to see something out of the ordinary in one of those titchy unpromising shopping-centre branches of Waterstone’s. (There’s someone with taste at their Ballymena branch – not normally a place associated with literary highs. I also bought E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hjalmar Söderberg there). I started reading it in February, only to be struck down – or at least, struck unable-to-concentrate-through-the-pain – with a shoulder injury. I went back to it after reading Michel Faber’s lavish praise for the author’s latest UK publication.
The Old Child (1999, tr. 2005 by Susan Bernofsky) is such a tough little thing that I wonder whether I would have slipped away from it first time around even without an injury to excuse me. It describes a young girl found “standing in the street with an empty bucket in one hand,” who fails or refuses to give any information about who she is or where she came from. “She was so surrounded by nothingness that there seemed, from the beginning, to be something implausible about her very existence.” The girl, who says she is fourteen years old, is “bigger than she should be”, and “hunches as though she were obliged to do so, to hold back a great force that is raging inside her.” She has a “wide, blotchy face” and her body is shaped “like a block of wood.”
This “pale, huge creature” is, or wants to be, “a blank slate.” But Erpenbeck does not succumb to the obvious technique of leaving the girl as pure allegory, or of filling in her character by the space she leaves around her and the impressions others have of her. We do get the girl’s own thoughts: she is taken to a school for troubled children, where she wants to “occupy the lowermost place that no one will fight her for.” She wants “to be given up on.” But she is human, and so full of contradictions. She finds herself pleased to be of use to the other children, but the relationship she attains with them is akin only to “the intimacy between a conspirator and the guards posted before his door.”
Erpenbeck reflects the girl’s central contradictions in the book itself. We are given frequent insights into the girl’s motives, but she remains mysterious. The ending provides us with a clear solution, yet sends the reader back through the pages in search of answers. There are many references to the girl’s past, which obscure as much as they illuminate. Take, for example, the treatment of the girl’s refusal to take sides in classroom disputes:
The place she occupies in classroom hostilities is therefore not always an honorable one, it isn’t really a place for a human being at all, since it forces one to approach zero, all one’s insides must be emptied out like a fish before frying, and only then will there be sufficient space for storing the misdeeds of others, others’ happiness and others’ grief. But the girl already had such a space within her when she arrived at the Home.
Of course it is these very qualities – demanding, teasing – that make the book such a success, enticing while reading and sticky in the memory when finished.
If The Old Child is a long but nourishing 100 pages, the accompanying story in this volume, The Book of Words (2005, tr. 2007), is knottier yet. A first person narrative by a child, it avoids the problems of many child narratives – cutesiness, sentimentality – by being frankly hard work. That is not quite right: certainly there is obscurity here, and translator Susan Bernofsky’s afterword that “the transplantation from German to English obscures certain fundamental points about the story being told” might have been more reassuring as an introduction. However even when scratching my head, I found much to enjoy within each paragraph, despite struggling to locate a larger view of the story. There is lovely imagery: “Where have all the sirens gone wailing off to? They turned into birds, my wet-nurse says. It is sunny and quiet in the middle of our city where the police live.” Sometimes the content seems to shine a dim light on its own difficulty:
Do you know what monsters live at a depth of four thousand meters? We shake our heads. It isn’t possible to know them, the teacher says.
These extracts, it turns out, are key to the central slow revelation of the story: as, probably, is everything else that didn’t seem obvious to me first time around. It does become clear, and the central figures in the girl’s life take on a new quality as the reader’s understanding grows. To say more, as ever, would spoil. It might be sufficient to point out that Erpenbeck grew up in the 1970s in what was then East Germany, and that this clearly (or turbidly) informs her work.
The Old Child and The Book of Words are what might commonly be called ‘difficult’. But they are only difficult if the reader is anticipating from the book a monologue rather than a dialogue: and where’s the fun in that? The language is clear and unaffected, but both stories resist full understanding until they are completed, which means the reader reinterprets them backwards. This makes a pleasant change from many books where we know what they’re about immediately, and what’s going to happen not long after. In The Old Child, the girl receives medical treatment where she finds staff who
are able to relieve a living creature, at least briefly, of the great responsibility of having always to sustain this life that has been given one, always with oneself to rely on, and without even knowing to what end.
The reader of Erpenbeck comes to know this feeling of self-reliance (for the time being “without even knowing to what end”), but here it makes a nice change, and the mind feels invigorated afterwards from the unaccustomed exercise.