The End of Days is 238 pages long and has one main character. It covers the period 1902-1992, from the dying days of the Austrian Empire through World Wars I and II, the rule of Stalin and of Hitler, the rise and fall of Nazism and Communism and the eventual hegemony of capitalism. Through all this runs the thread of the fate of the Jews throughout European history. So it covers a huge amount of ground in quite a small book. When I tell you that the main character dies at eight months of age at the beginning of the book you may well wonder just what Jenny Erpenbeck is up to. If I tell you that the baby who dies in the first section is then reimagined in four different scenarios that might have come about if just one factor had been different, maybe you’ll groan and think, not another of those “sliding doors” scenarios whose point is that life is all chance. Or a kind of quantum physics literature, in which it’s impossible to predict the outcome of any single event. So what, you say.
Well, where to start? This is a wonderful book on every level: its technical grace, its musical structure, its breadth of historical vision, its philosophical depth and its humanity. I don’t read German, but those who do are full of admiration for Susan Bernofsky’s translation. Here’s an example:
Four weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, his mother received the National Prize First Class for her life’s work. She walked to the front of the auditorium on his arm to receive the certificate and a little box. Now he’s sitting with her on a bench during this at the edge of the woods, the leaves rustle behind them, and before them lies a wide, gently sloping field, upon which the blue-green wheat is still only knee-high. When the wind sweeps across it, it looks almost like water.
I just wanted to tell you, his mother says, this is my good, good lovely farewell.
Oh, mother, he says, stroking her back.
My fear of the future she says, has not yet failed.
A couple of his mother’s friends wanted to come to celebrate her birthday, but he told them no. Because he was ashamed of his mother? Or because he was of the opinion that his mother should be preserved in her friends’ memories just as she used to be? Whom was he doing a favour: her, her friends, or himself?
It sinks down over you from above to below – you don’t know what side it’s coming from. I don’t know, and you probably don’t know either.
No, I don’t know.
Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is of a very different sort than hers. His mother’s not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different sort of world than the one he lives in. (234-5)
This is the fifth and last section of the book, in which the character dies in a nursing home at the age of 90. She is a celebrated writer who for the first time in the book has a name, Frau Hoffmann. In the previous four sections, she has been: the nameless baby; then a nameless lovelorn teenager starving in war-ravaged Vienna in 1919; then a woman known as Comrade H in Moscow in the late 30s trying to write an account of her life that will save her from the regime; then the same Comrade H, who, by a series of random acts of chance, has escaped her fate in Moscow and become a writer in Berlin. Had this Comrade H taken more care going down the stairs, she would have survived to become Frau Hoffmann of the final section.
Erpenbeck’s point is not about the role of random chance in our lives. We’ve heard all that before. The re-imagining of the fate of the central character is a way of re-imagining and humanising history. We define whole eras by their catastrophic wars or their political -isms, and seen from a distance, that’s what history looks like – theoretical, schematic – but within those huge movements millions of individual lives rattle around and collide, as warm and nervous and hopeful and painful as our own. It’s no accident that the girl/woman becomes more and more real to us as the book moves on. The final section is a wonderfully realistic and touching picture of the declining years of Frau Hoffmann, whereas the first section has an almost folkloric quality to it. And Erpenbeck has a way of getting into the thought-speak of the age and the way it invades our individual thinking: the section set in KGB-ruled Moscow is horribly comical in its mimicry of the dead language of hard-line communism. Comrade H cannot get away from the fact of her “bourgeois” origins:
Her background stuck to her, there was no helping it, and she was stuck to it as well. She’d been able to remake her thinking from scratch, but not her family history.
Never would she possess the same level of freedom as her husband, who was free for all time – doubly free – and in principle even now that he was in prison, since he’d completed an apprenticeship as a metal worker before beginning to write…(120-1)
Locked in this struggle with words to try to construct a version of her life acceptable to the Party, one of Comrade H’s harshest realisations is that language is not, as she had thought, a vehicle for truth.
Of course this is, as the title suggests, a book about death. Erpenbeck has said that she started thinking about it after the death of her mother. The way we die fixes a certain narrative about our life in the minds of those left behind, and our death changes the narrative of their lives too. To a greater or lesser extent, it throws them into a different trajectory, just as the imagined deaths of Erpenbeck’s character throws the book into different trajectories. And what is history, seen close up, but the colliding and intersecting of these different trajectories?
To state the book’s preoccupations like this doesn’t capture the immense pleasure of reading it. It’s alive on so many levels: of language, of image, of feeling and of thought. Every time I’ve looked back at it while writing this I’ve found something I hadn’t taken in before, and something quite different I want to say. Absolutely the top of my list for 2015.
Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2014).