The Old Child & Other Stories by Jenny Erpenbeck
Visiting a foreign country can often be frustrating when there’s a communication barrier. The same can be said about reading stories that aren’t written in your native language. If it weren’t for Susan Bernofsky, translator of The Old Child and Other Stories, we’d be unable to digest all of experimental prose, historical parallels and telling memories of the past that East Berlin born author, Jenny Erpenbeck offers up in this collection. This collection introduces us to the oddities and idiosyncrasies that exist in the six stories here. They intertwine love, loss and the magnificence of the human mind.
Erpenbeck is not your average ingénue when it comes to story-telling. She’s been working on operas and musical stories as well as written. She’s been busy creating alternate worlds for her characters on the page and on the stage. And it’s within Erpenbeck’s mystical words and bleak settings that we can experience such oppressive environments, eccentric relatives and a parable about a maverick-like amnesiac. Somber settings and political history serve as undercurrents throughout the collection. Most of the stories have a strong narrative voice and tend to change often.
In the title story, a 75-page novella, we find what looks to be a young girl of middle school age, who’s been abandoned and is picked up off the streets by the in-takers at a nearby home for children. The location is dreary and the rules are strict but they seem to be easy to abide by for this young girl. Dresden is gloomy and often the perfect place for mayhem among youngsters. The staff discovers this young girl has no apparent memory of her past. While she suffers from amnesia, she also remains the social outcast among her peers. She doesn’t need to be the popular one, as she can “simply allow herself to be shoved, she will keep her place in the institution forever and will never have to get anywhere, not even the ninth grade.” This mentality keeps her alone and it seems she prefers it this way. And while she makes few friends, it is her intent to stay frozen in time, thus not moving forward in school and in life alongside them. She becomes a confidant to the rebels and the mischief makers after awhile, but rather than warming up to this attention she begins to feel even more removed from them. Paralysis sets in one morning and she is sent to a local hospital where she is monitored. Slowly, they come to realize she’s indeed, a grown woman. It is painfully apparent that our main character is not playing make-believe. She is acting as if she were a child, yet in her attempt to circumvent adult life she’d become a true child. Erpenbeck alludes to her desires in fact, what she desperately wants and fears. Often times this story will break off into third person narrative and we can catch a glimpse of the psychological root of her wishes.
The story, "In the Half-Shadow of My Skull," we visit a woman who is involved with a married couple in a ménage à trois. The lover narrates a story of love and pain. She endures cigarette burns on the soles of her feet and other abuse from the husband and sporadic comfort from his wife. The wife is picky about her loyalties and often mistreats the lover as well. The Lover has inadvertently picked two masochists who have no difficulty putting her in the middle of their own issues. The husband announces the onset of his lascivious behavior in a short passage. “I heard a drill going next door, and then all at once, a little girl screaming. That’s the first time I ever felt aroused. It has to do with innocence.” While our narrator kisses the wife and tells, she also finds herself being submissive in her relationship with the husband.
"Siberia" is one of the best stories in this short collection. The narrator’s father recalls memories from his childhood about his mother who had returned from exile in Siberia during the war to find her husband now with a live-in mistress. Left for dead, the narrator’s mother finds her way home amidst post-war rubble. The narrator's tells of how his mother returned, atop a milk-truck back to their home to re-claim her family from his father’s mistress, recalling his first memory of her. “She smelled of vanilla. As filthy as she was she smelled of vanilla.” The mother’s verve for life had all but sucked the life right out of the father. One part happy and two parts broken by the return of his wife and the manner in which she removed his mistress from their home, the father slowly retreats into nothingness. While the mistress was never the equivalent to his wife, the father did treasure some of his memories with her. In the end, he never really recovered from her return, and as he became ill later in life, he resisted her. “With his last breath he was still pushing away (her) hand.”
What is interesting about this collection is that submissiveness, mental and physical abuse, even psychosis all feature prominently as themes and thus affecting the mood of each story, yet Erpenbeck manages to not over-do it. The other three stories all deal with memory. Either with the recovery or loss of it. "Sand" is an extremely touching account of a girl’s account of her failing grandmother as she becomes forgetful and weak. Each day she spends with her Grandmother she observes her distinct dissent into senility. And while the Grandmother’s actions become even stranger as time progresses, she keeps a youthful laughter that the girl decides must be her own laughter inhabiting her grandmother. Erpenbeck captures how vital language is to their relationship whether it’s spoken, written or sung. “Then she (the grandmother) gives me sentences to speak, putting stones in my mouth so my tongue will learn to curl its way around all obstacles.”
In Hale and Hallowed, we meet Maria Kainbaher who attempts to find a friend from 50 years prior to see if they can rekindle a friendship from long ago. Maria sets out on a long journey (for an old woman) to find her friend Gertrud by walking the roads of town until she finally reaches her. “She knows that her bones are more durable than those of other people, and it doesn’t surprise her that a body growing older, begins to gravitate toward the earth in which it will soon be buried.” Unfortunately, Erpenbeck cuts this story short with an unexpected ending.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s collection of stories enter into landscapes surreal and often fairytale-esque. Her prose can be dark and the stories eccentric. The collection is extremely dense and heavy yet, handled with precision and great detail. Each of her stories provide a peek at the political rumblings that shape some of the language in her stories. Redeeming in so many ways, Jenny Erpenbeck and her stories have found their way into American hands and its true there is not a word or a phrase that’s been lost in translation.
The Old Child & Other Stories by Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions Press