Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words derives much of its potency from the naïveté of its young, unnamed female narrator. In an unidentified South American country governed by a brutal regime, our guileless guide lives a cloistered life, shuttling between a well-appointed home and a walled-in private school. Gunshots heard from the playground are interpreted whimsically by classmates; concern about a woman dragged from a bus by her hair is shushed away by consoling parents. Like “The Old Child,” the title piece of this German author’s 1999 debut collection (published in English in 2005), The Book of Words effortlessly weaves together the quotidian and the horrific in paragraph-long vignettes. Action is conveyed through a sheltered child’s consciousness, though one that inopportunely wavers between what seem like the ages of six and 16; Erpenbeck’s prose, with its brief declarative sentences and stuttering repetitions, is two parts Forrest Gump to each part Gertrude Stein.
One can sense the narrator’s reality slipping away from actual events. “Since the railway has been abolished, words can run away from their things in all sorts of ways,” she notes roughly midway through the tale, linking societal dysfunction and psychological dissociation. But concrete facts inevitably return: “Today I perceive the smell of rotting food more sharply, today, it seems to me, this smell is overpowering that of the living things.” It’s not only food that’s decaying; eventually our unwitting Virgil is visited by the ghosts of friends and family members disappeared by the government. Indeed, as she recognizes the faces of her father’s friends on statues, earlier, oft-repeated observations about her parents take on premonitory shadings.
Near the end of “The Old Child,” the narrator ages many years in a few weeks; here, as an angry mob storms the gates of the family compound and the narrator’s father grabs her for a daring getaway, an entire society begins a process of rapid transformation long held in check. This slim parable’s redeeming anonymity allows one to read into its action shades of repression both past and present.