In Jenny Erpenbeck’s works, things disappear. People disappear. Knowledge disappears. Even rituals and customs, the practices meant to guard against the erosion of culture by binding us to our past, dissolve over time. Erpenbeck’s oeuvre is thematically complex, historically focused, and materially rich, and yet impermanence—the simple idea that things disappear—is what endures across her works. Who better to write about the eventual disappearance of all things, even those that seem most constant to us, than Jenny Erpenbeck? A young adult when Germany united in 1990, she witnessed the swift dismantling of her state and the erasure of much of her culture as the East was incorporated into the West. For Erpenbeck nothing lasts, not home, not country, not even memory.
Many German authors writing in the twenty-first century cast a historical gaze on the previous one, focalizing that gaze through individual or family narratives. No one does this better than Jenny Erpenbeck. Her debut literary work, the novella Story of the Old Child (1999), garnered rave reviews from critics for its allegory of East Germany as a group home. Story of the Old Child is the parable of a girl found standing alone on a street corner with nothing but the clothes she is wearing and an empty bucket in her hand. A social blank slate, the girl cannot remember who she is or where she is from; she only knows that she is fourteen ye