It was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the sudden disappearance of her homeland that turned Jenny Erpenbeck into a writer.
Her life, she says in Not a Novel, was split into two halves divided by the collapse of the East German state she grew up in. “Without this experience of transition, from one world to a very other one, I probably never would have started writing,” she says.
It is a blessing that she did. Over the past decade, Erpenbeck has emerged as one of the most original voices in contemporary European letters. Her last book, Go, Went, Gone, about a group of African refugees in Berlin and how they impinge on the lives of Germans trying to help them, is one of the best novels yet written about the European migration crisis.
Not a Novel is something else: a compendium of Erpenbeck’s texts and speeches from the last two decades. As it progresses, her perspective broadens: we start off with autobiographical sketches about East Berlin and end with a 2018 speech entitled “Blind Spots” that brings those experiences up-to-date, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the collapse of East Germany and the European refugee influx of 2015-16.
Why, she asks, are the images of East Germans sitting astride the Berlin Wall so positive and those of refugees scaling the barbed-wire fence that separates the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco so negative? “Why do we still hear laments for the Germans who died attempting to flee over the wall but almost none for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years, turning the sea into a giant grave?”
This impatience with the west’s double standards merges with a deep recognition of how accidental human fate can be. She was never, she says, a refugee. Yet she also grew up in a different country, “and it was a stroke of good fortune that the Federal Republic simply issued us new West German passports — something refugees today can only dream of.”
Perhaps the most poignant moments, though, are Erpenbeck’s elegiac descriptions of her East Berlin childhood. The wall may have been an abomination, but the absence of through traffic in its shadow meant children could roller-skate there to their heart’s content. “There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth,” she writes.
It is just one example of the way Erpenbeck plays with the contrast between western tourists’ view of East Berlin — cold, grey, monolithic — and the perception of children who lived there. For the latter, bombed-out ruins and vacant lots were a perfect playground. An empty space was a place “that adults had either abandoned or forbidden, and so now, at least in my imagination, it belonged entirely to me.”
The building boom in post-reunification Berlin erased that world forever: and Erpenbeck’s meditations on its loss are particularly moving. She admits to deep ambivalence about the fall of the wall, which “dragged us into this big, wide world so quickly that there was no time to think”.
Suddenly the first 22 years of her life were invalidated, the country she had grown up in condemned as a “rogue regime”. “Freedom wasn’t given freely, it came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point,” she writes. Her childhood “belonged in a museum.”
Not a Novel is not just autobiographical. There are fascinating reflections on German literature — Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Hans Fallada, Thomas Mann and Walter Kempowski’s war novel All for Nothing — as well as exquisite descriptions of the writing process.
Why does a person want to write? she asks at one point. It’s because “we find it hard to make ourselves understood.” “In fact,” she goes on, “as strange as it sounds, the most important reason for writing is probably that we are at a loss for words.”
Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Kurt Beals, Granta, RRP£14.99, 208 pages
Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
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