Reflections on Loss: Family Memory and the Natural Environment in 21st-Century German Novels
My study examines the way 21th century German authors juxtapose discussions of memory (familial and historical) with reflections on the relationship between humans and non-human nature, such as animals, plants and natural ecosystems. My examples are drawn from the following thee recent novels: Tanja Dückers’ Der längste Tag des Jahres (2006), Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung (2008) and Judith Schalansky’s Der Hals der Giraffe (2011). These novels thematize memory of historical events or time periods while emphasizing human domination, manipulation and/or destruction of animals, plants and ecosystems for human gain and enjoyment. While the setting varies, from a wooded parcel of land in former East Germany, to miniature desert terrariums in Southern Germany to a desert landscape in the American Southwest, the way the authors portray the complex relationship between humans, animals and plants is surprisingly similar in each work.
In particular, my contribution bridges an analysis of memory and an examination of the treatment of the environment in these novels by outlining the generational differences the authors present in the characters’ relationship with the environment. While one generation in a family focuses on governance of ecosystems, whether in miniature terrariums, meticulously designed garden landscapes, or fruitless agricultural experiments, the next generation reflects on the agency of natural matter as well as human destruction and greed. These different conceptions of nature juxtapose human exploitation and subjugation of natural resources with human appreciation of the power of plants and animals. In these reflections, the narrators often blur the line between what is human and what is animal.
Moreover, the aesthetic quality of nature and its function as an object of human observation is present in each novel and directly linked to memories. It is nature in its many varied forms (domesticated animals, Northern European landscapes, desert terrains, the human body etc.) that enables characters to “remember” and reflect on personal experiences, historical events, and the relationship between humans and nature.
Keywords: Ecocriticism, family, memory, German novels