SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

The Old Child & The Book of Words, by Jenny Erpenbeck

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The Old Child & The Book of Words, by Jenny Erpenbeck Portobello Books Ltd; New edition Dec. 1, 2008)

This unusual edition contains two short novels  – or long short stories – that were first published 5 years apart. The publisher cleverly combined them here, since they are complete opposites, yet share the themes of language and memory. Both short novels were originally written in German. In the first story, The Old Child (Geschichte vom alten Kind), published in 1999, the child is fat, lonely, speechless and in an orphanage in a Northern European country. No-one knows where she came from, what had traumatized her or even how old she is. Erpenbeck achieves a remarkable feat by creating a voice for a child in whom, and for whom, there are no words, since she does not speak or think, and no-one talks about her.

In the next story, The Book of Words (Wörterbuch), 2004, Erpenbeck creates a contrasting character: – a talkative child living in a South American totalitarian state, who repeats and puzzles over the expressions of her wealthy parents. They pepper their simple child-talk with casual references to unspeakable atrocities.The first story evokes the minimalist, chilling precision with which Peter Høeg describes the inner world of disturbed children. The second brings to mind the profusion of words, fractured timelines and fantastical imagery of Gabriel García Márquez. Both stories are superbly crafted and definitely classics in the making.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born 12 March 1967 in East Berlin. She is a German director and writer. Her books have won numerous awards. Her latest novel is The End of Days (2012).

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