Saturday 28 April 2018


The Old Child and The Book of Words by Jenny Erpenbeck  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The idea we have of the world is inextricable from the words which could either be said to describe it or to comprise it. As children, our knowledge of objects, actions and expectations is gained concurrently with the words and phrases that, at the moment of their learning, both separate these objects, actions and expectations from the undifferentiated mass of the Unknown and incorporate them into the networked mass of social constructs we think of as our world. In the novella ‘The Book of Words’, we are presented with what at first it seems a series of childhood memories presented in relation to the words that describe them, and it is not not this. As well as being a tender reminiscence of a young girl’s life, presented in crystalline present tense with all the quirks and facets of a child’s view, increasingly we find, in the same language, the trace of something horrible, something that has erased the words that could be used to describe it. People who have featured in the narrative begin to be absent from it. Awful details appear and are, initially, quickly brushed aside or overwritten by other memories. Hints of wrongness in the world beyond the family start to insert themselves into the girl’s memories, despite her resistance to them or because of her innocence about their significance. The particles of wrongness in this novella are all the more horribly wrong for having such weights of benign quotidian detail levered upon them. Language, which builds as a child learns, cracks, distorts and fragments under trauma, as does the concept of reality that it bears. As the narrative continues, it becomes increasingly horrific, increasingly hysterical, increasingly divorced from rational sense, the language distorted and abused by the horrors that it conceals. The motto “Silence is health,” innocently mentioned early on, becomes an uncomfortable call to turn the head away from that which cannot be faced. Towards the end of the novella, as the girl is given an early birthday party (and she is much older, therefore more mentally stunted, than we had imagined) and the family flee the country after what we surmise has been a political reversal, we learn that that father has been a torturer in the old regime, his activities being described in the same tone, the child’s tone, as the innocent details of the child’s life, all the more horrific for being so described: “Once you’ve connected a body to an electrical circuit the truth comes out of it like a worm.” Although not specified, details in the text suggest the complicity of the father, apparently a Nazi post-war immigrant, in Argentina’s CIA-backed ‘Dirty War’, and in the disposal of the bodies of the ‘disappeared’. “What is sick will die out. The future belongs to us,” the father declares, in ultimate futility. What future is there, though, for the narrator, whose world of words has been so malformed by the circumstances of her upbringing?
In ‘The Old Child’, the other novella in this volume, a large and ungainly girl is brought to an orphanage carrying only a bucket, seemingly unable to remember anything of her past, a tabula rasa, it seems, upon which the orphanage and school, the other girls, the supervisors and teachers will write themselves. “In the girl’s head, at the spot which in the others is occupied by an opinion, there is only emptiness.” At first the girl is shunned by her schoolmates, finding a place only at the bottom of the pecking order. Although she seems to understand more than she displays, “school is the place where errors must occur to give it meaning.” What is the inner life of the girl? If she has one, it is completely disconnected from the world she shares with her peers. She obeys instructions and is assiduous in keeping her belongings in order, which the others feel as a threat: “Among slaves nothing is deadlier than for one of their number to voluntarily assume a slave’s role. But while the girl’s desire for order happens to correspond to the standards imposed by the pedagogical staff, its origins are quite different. The girls sees her stack of clothes, which is comprehensible to her, in relation to all that appears incomprehensible to her and thus hostile. Disorder of every sort is hostile, this begins with those objects that, precisely because they weren’t stacked neatly in a cupboard, fall out when you open the door, but it ends in putrefaction, death and confusion, the things the girl refuses to think about.” When she is taken ill and receiving treatment at the orphanage infirmary, the girl finds it reassuring that in receiving treatment she receives the treatment that others would receive, making her like them, and also likes being relieved of having to direct her own actions. As the narrative progresses, the girl becomes more formed by her peers and by her situation, no longer a blank slate but bearer of a degree of personhood, though entirely formulated from without, a reflection of her circumstances. This begins with the necessity of eating, a basic requisite for existence and thus the beginning of personality: “Whereas generally she is colourless, nearly to the point of invisibility, the concentration she brings to the activity of eating gives her the appearance of having character.” The girl becomes increasinly a part of the group, but also grows inexplicably tired. She is taken first to the infirmary and then leaves the orphanage for a hospital where she is revealed to be a full-grown woman with a memory and personality different from and incompatible with that of which she was becoming the bearer in the orphanage. “The girl’s life left no traces where it was being spent.” In the orphanage, “no-one would be able to say what it is the girl has done to make everyone erase her with their silence, but within them blossoms a great monstrous hope: that she might never return.” As well as being a study of the societal generation of so-called personality, the novella feels like it might be an allegory, perhaps of the political fate of Erpenbeck’s East Germany, a corollary, perhaps with Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, though it was interesting to learn that, before writing the book, Erpenbeck pretended to be a teenager and attended a school incognito to learn about the conformative group dynamics of students.

No comments:

Post a Comment