Jenny Erpenbeck is fixated on the terrors of childhood. The title piece of her 1999 debut collection, The Old Child & Other Stories, is the tale of a nameless orphan found on the street and brought to a boarding school, where she lives in paralyzing fear of her classmates. “Around me, everything is awhirl,” she says. “No one looks at me, I don’t know what I have done.” The school’s rigid social hierarchy is more than she can bear: She falls violently ill and, in a twist straight out of a gothic fable, ages decades in a matter of weeks.
The protagonist of Erpenbeck’s novella, The Book of Words, published in the author’s native Germany in 2005 and expertly translated by Susan Bernofsky, is also an unnamed girl for whom the world is a perplexing and unbearable place where everything seems in flux and the facade of civilization is eroding. Raised by doting parents in an unspecified country that faintly resembles Argentina during the years of the Dirty War, she lives in comfort in a house filled with antique furniture and backed by a manicured fruittree garden. She is also slowly, bitterly losing her grip on reality. “Words used to be stable, fixed in place,” she claims, “but now I’m letting them all go, if need be I’ll cut off a foot if that’s the only way to get rid of them.” She vows to “seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory.”
Yet she never fulfills this wish for self-annihilation. Instead, in a series of compact, often loopy recollections, she describes her surreal life under the totalitarian regime. She’s never allowed to go out alone, friends and family members disappear, and horrific acts of violence—a friend’s sister kills herself with an air pistol, a woman is dragged off a bus by her hair—are committed regularly. Circumstances have forced her retreat into a world of private concerns that mirror the problems of society at large. A government-imposed shutdown of the local railroad, she imagines, has effected a rupture in the nature of logic: “You can no longer ride along the words as if they were tracks, always arriving at the same thing by the same route.” She longs for a more direct relation to language—and, by extension, the world.
That’s exactly what she gets, when her father, on the run from the authorities, absconds with her to a mountainside and confesses his complicity in the torture and murder of their fellow citizens. “Once you’ve connected a body to the electrical circuit, the truth comes out of it like a worm,” he says. The metaphor is apt, as what we are left with at the end of this haunting novella is a grotesque vision of humanity. Asked what she plans to do after her parents are imprisoned, she simply replies, “Sleep.”