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The Enduring Impermanence Of Jenny Erpenbeck

For Jenny Erpenbeck, nothing lasts forever, not home, not the rituals that connect us to previous generations, not even death. Even her writing style celebrates this impermanence.

Necia Chronister

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 years old. Unsure of what to do with her, the authorities take her to a home for children, where she quickly finds her place at the bottom of the social ladder because of her physical awkwardness and lack of social skills. She yearns to belong to the social order of the home and eagerly accepts her place at the bottom, the most secure place in any social order because it need not be defended. She knows what exists outside the walls of the school, and whereas others want freedom, she relishes the predictability and order of the school itself. To be sure, there is something unintelligible about this girl, who seems to lack both a sense of self and control over her unwieldy body. It is not until the twist ending of the novella that we learn she harbors a secret: she is not really fourteen years old, but actually thirty. She is a woman who has chosen to retreat to the security and order of an institution for children.

Story of the Old Child draws allusions to German cultural and literary history, particularly to the nineteenth-century foundling Kaspar Hauser and Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerath, who famously stunted his own growth in the acclaimed novel The Tin Drum. Just as with Grass’s novel, critics have noted the political allegory of Erpenbeck’s story. After the unification of East and West Germany, many former easterners found themselves out of work, their professional credentials revoked, and as a result economically destitute, all without the social structures that had protected them against poverty in the socialist system. The politics and economics of German unification had failed them, and the promise of freedom felt like a cruel trick to many who could not make ends meet in the new capitalist system. By the late 1990s, many wished for a return to the GDR, and critics saw Erpenbeck’s “old child” as an expression of that desire. Other critics saw the girl herself as an allegory of the East, having arrived suddenly on the political scene of the West without understanding the new social order. Like the old child, East Germany was awkward, economically and politically “stunted” in the new system.

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July - August 2018