“What are my eyes for if they can see but see nothing? What are my ears for if they can hear but hear nothing? Why all this strangeness inside my head?”
Childhood doesn’t make sense.
When we are children, we try to understand the rules governing human interactions in this complex world. This endeavor is made especially difficult when parents try to preserve a child’s innocence in a society full of unexplained cruelty.
In The Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck tells the surreal tale of childhood under a repressive government. The location of the story is unspecified. It apparently takes place in Argentina but also reflects Erpenbeck’s upbringing in East Berlin under Communist rule.
“Why am I never allowed to go anywhere by myself, I ask my mother. Because you can never know what might happen, my mother says. We walk into the park at whom center a large man made of stone is standing. Besides this man, no one is here, but in a country where the sun is almost always shining, no one likes to go for walks in the middle of the day, not even in the shade. Or does everyone who comes here alone for a walk get turned to stone, I ask my mother. What nonsense, she replies and goes on walking.”
The unnamed narrator’s childhood is a story of innocence in a world of subtraction. Family and friends routinely disappear without any explanation. Even words themselves seem to disappear. The story of The Book of Words becomes especially harrowing as we learn the role played by the narrator’s own family in the government’s repressive activities.
The Book of Words is written in the style of Marcel Proust. The writing is beautiful, and the story is built on memories in a surrealistic fashion. However, Erpenbeck’s novella conveys the story in a much more concise fashion than Proust, which is fitting for a book of subtraction where words disappear:
“My father takes me on his lap. I lay myself flat against his belly and curl up so that my head comes to rest between his head and shoulder. He rocks me back and forth, softly singing the song of our homeland, a song in a minor key, my and my father’s song, we often sit together like this, but while he is really singing, I release my breath only on certain notes, as the desire strikes me, very softly. Sometimes my breath fits with what he is singing, but often it doesn’t, and then the whole thing sounds off-kilter and clashes, but this too pleases him and me.”
The Book of Words is a haunting portrait of a society that lives under constant fear, told from the point of view of an innocent child just trying to make sense out of something that is inherently nonsensical. Jenny Erpenbeck is clearly among the forefront of contemporary German literature.