cover image The Book of Words

The Book of Words

Jenny Erpenbeck, , trans. from the German by Susan Bernofsky. . New Directions, $14.95 (93pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1706-4

German author Erpenbeck (The Old Child & Other Stories ) observes the machinations of a repressive political regime through the eyes of an adolescent girl in this slim but dense novella. The story is set in an unnamed tropical capital where the sun always shines (probably Argentina, the translator notes) and narrated by a girl who parrots what she hears from her parents, emigrants from a snowy faraway place very much like Germany: her father is a highly placed minister whose job is to “maintain an equilibrium,” that is, to torture people; and her mother is a pampered homemaker who prefers to insulate herself from reality. The young narrator begins to notice how things are changing: shops are closed up, the railroad is abolished, food is rationed and people in her life begin to disappear or are detained and abused by the police. Half-truths, hearsay and speculation form the slippery foundation of the narrator’s knowledge, giving readers an intriguing vantage point from which to view a country in turmoil. (Dec.)