I so loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation and was thrilled when New Directions hired me to translate it. I always tell people it’s like a family saga without the family: a novel about several generations of families living in a single little house in the countryside outside Berlin, one whose location means that every political upheaval of the twentieth century forces whoever is living there to flee. An architect buys the land from Jews fleeing Hitler to build the house, then he himself runs into difficulties with the East German government. Russian soldiers occupying the region overlap with someone who probably should have fled but instead went into hiding.
All these intersecting stories are related with an amazing level of historical accuracy (Erpenbeck did a lot of serious research for this one) while also providing moving portraits of each of the characters. The narrative voice is nomadic, allying itself which each of the characters in turn, which makes the book a collage of voices, though there is also the sense of a timeless narrator/chronicler tying the story together.
The novel was co-published by Portobello Books in England, where it immediately got a great deal of attention, with rave reviews in The Guardian, The Independent (twice), the TLS, the Daily Mail, PRI’s The World (BBC), the Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times, which also put the novel on its best-of-2010 list. In the United States, the reviews came in more slowly, though Vogue ran an interview with Erpenbeck back in October. Visitation was also featured in Time Out Chicago, Publishers Weekly, Bookmark Magazine, The Daily Beast, Ron Slate’s blog On the Seawall, and Three Percent as well as the Canadian journals Border Crossing and The Edmonton Journal. This week the book was included on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award 2011 and also profiled in a beautiful new review on Words Without Borders. That’s a lot of attention for one little book, but in this case I think it’s deserved; Erpenbeck has outdone herself, producing a book with an uncanny ability to move.