Born in East Berlin in 1967, Jenny Erpenbeck was 22 when the Wall that had divided her native city for her entire life fell. The socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR), the only country she had known, vanished overnight. By her own account, in the essays collected in Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (2018), this historical rupture confronted her with fundamental questions about continuity and change, agency and contingency, borders and identity, liberation and loss. Although these questions have animated her fiction for more than twenty years, her most recent novel, Kairos (2021), is the first to be centered on how the radically transformative period of German reunification was experienced by those who found themselves, as she writes, “at home on the wrong side.”
The novel’s proximity to her own life is a long way from the more allegorical mode of storytelling that marked her early work, and yet in hindsight her path seems to have been leading inevitably to this juncture. Her first two novellas, The Story of the Old Child (1999) and The Book of Words (2004), hover in an ambiguous zone between historical specificity and decontextualization. Erpenbeck at once anonymizes and obliquely alludes to the where and when of these stories, keeping the past at a certain remove even as she adumbrates a reckoning with it.
In The Story of The Old Child, a grown woman poses as an orphaned adolescent and lives in a children’s home. Although the setting is East Germany, its particulars are only glimpsed through cracks in the unnamed protagonist’s attempt to seal herself off from the outside world. Late in the story she attends an assembly on the anniversary of the firebombing of the city where the children’s home is located. Key details indicate that the city can only be Dresden. The historical reality of collective trauma impinges on the insularity into which the “old child” fled whatever made adulthood unbearable to her.
In The Book of Words, the narrator’s privileged childhood under totalitarian rule in a South American country is shadowed by hints of violence and cruelty. After the fall of the regime, the narrator finds out not only that her father worked for it as a torturer, but also that he wasn’t her real father. Her actual parents were victims of the regime. These events track what occurred in Argentina during its brutal military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, when the children of desaparecidos were abducted and raised by families close to the military. The narrator also implicates Germany in her excavation of evil by linking her father’s inhuman acts to those of her maternal grandfather, who, as her father tells her with chilling matter-of-factness, “used to toss children into the air on the other side of the world if they were small and light enough, toss them into the air like birds and then shoot them before their parents’ eyes.” Recalling that the narrator’s feared and despised mother has “eyes the color of water” and comes from a distant place where there is snow, and that snatches of German lullabies and nursery rhymes have been woven into the narrator’s memories, readers can follow these threads back to the flight of Nazi war criminals to Argentina.
But here, too, Erpenbeck refrains from making explicit references to the historical context. On one level, these omissions correspond to the gaps, occlusions and opacities that form the narrator’s subjectivity. On another level, they accentuate the paradigmatic dimension of the experiences depicted in the story, suggesting, in the unsettling way of folktales, that such experiences are not necessarily anchored in a single time and place.
After learning the truth about her parents, the narrator remarks, “Now I’ve been liberated, they tell me.” But what can it mean to be “liberated” from the family in which she grew up, her identification with her own past and all that once felt most familiar to her: “from woolen cap with pompom, wooden floor in which the door of my room scrapes a semicircle when it opens, from pink-colored house, smell of tobacco, Rose of Jericho, the dew in the garden, the salute to the flag and so on”?
“Liberation” seems definable only as what separates the terms of her existence from their former definitions. The novel’s German title—Wörterbuch—also means “dictionary,” and on the first page the narrator invokes the “silent halves” of words that drag them down “like lead weights around ankles.” The bitter irony of the narrator’s “liberation” is that it amounts to the revocation of everything she thought she knew. Tellingly, Erpenbeck echoes this passage in one of the essays in Not a Novel, reflecting on the dissolution of the GDR: “Freedom wasn’t given freely, it came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point.”
If Erpenbeck at first relied on the somewhat de-historicizing techniques of allegory, her next two novels, Visitation (2008) and The End of Days (2012), established her as a successor to a lineage of postwar German writers on both sides of the Wall, including Günter Grass, Christa Wolf and W.G. Sebald, who grappled in their fiction with the horrors of twentieth-century German history. What is distinctive about Erpenbeck’s novels, however, is their mixture of claustrophobic intimacy and kaleidoscopic sweep.
Visitation refracts more than a hundred years of history through a mosaic of stories involving the shifting occupants of a grand lakeside house outside Berlin. Under the Third Reich the Jewish owners of the house are forced to sell it to an architect and his wife. The architect’s self-justification that he paid them “a full half of market value … by no means a paltry sum” is ultimately refuted by their grisly murder in a “gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Łodz.” At the war’s end, a Red Army officer discovers the architect’s wife hiding in the house’s secret closet. The harrowing rape scene that follows is the novel’s most graphic episode of violated domestic interiority. After the war the house changes hands again. The East German government drives out the architect for illegal dealings with the West and awards the house to a writer returning from wartime exile in Moscow. In the wake of reunification, however, this writer’s granddaughter has to relinquish the house after a successful restitution claim by the architect’s family. Erpenbeck’s investigation of what happens to the sense of home in twentieth-century Germany is a chronicle of dispossession. (The novel’s German title, Heimsuchung, is a compound made up of the words “home” and “seeking,” and has connotations of haunting and affliction.)
The End of Days spans the same eras as Visitation and has a similar structure of nested stories within a larger arc. The novel begins with a mother standing over her infant daughter’s grave in a Galician shtetl at the dawn of the twentieth century. What ensues is a series of hypothetical versions of the dead child’s future, imagining what might have become of her if she had lived on and grown up in post-World War I Vienna, only to die under different circumstances, then be resurrected again to continue her story in Soviet exile during World War II, and so on. In the end, her successive alternate lives traverse all the displacement and ruin of the twentieth century that, dead and buried at its outset, she would have been barred or spared from knowing.
In an essay in Not a Novel, Erpenbeck points out that the German phrase “the grace of late birth,” referring to those born after the generation compromised by National Socialism, encapsulates a recognition that “time … separates us from circumstances that might have turned us into very different people.” This insight into the accident of being thrown into the world at a moment and place not of our own choosing lies at the heart of The End of Days. It is sharpened, Erpenbeck suggests, by the shocks of historical upheaval.
The protagonist of her next novel, Go, Went, Gone (2015), testifies to how experiences of profound dislocation cast into relief “the thought of everlasting flux and the ephemeral nature of all human constructs, the sense that all existing order is vulnerable to reversal.” To his generation of East Germans, he muses, who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War and later witnessed “the fragility of the Socialist system under which they’d lived most of their lives and that collapsed within a matter of weeks,” instability and impermanence have “always seemed perfectly natural.” This observation anticipates the thematic nexus of Kairos. In light of the subsequent novel, Go, Went, Gone appears pivotal in the trajectory of Erpenbeck’s work.
Its protagonist, Richard, is a widowed, recently retired classics professor, who lives in a house overlooking a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. The resemblance to the setting of Visitation is a clue that this book may be more continuous with its predecessors than is immediately evident. Richard has settled into a daily existence of quiet, orderly routines, until he encounters a group of African asylum seekers protesting on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and undergoes a crisis of conscience that shakes him out of his complacency. He visits their shelter, interviews them, and listens to their wrenching stories. In the end their plight moves him to let twelve of the men live in his house, even after suspecting another of them to have broken in and stolen jewelry that had belonged to his mother and his late wife. As in Visitation, Richard’s home, which at first offered him seclusion from the turbulent events happening elsewhere in the city, fails to maintain its illusory inviolability. The loss of that hermetic self-enclosure doesn’t prompt Richard to mourn, however, but to open up to the anguish and needs of others.
Though the novel, with its present-day setting and straightforward narration, is in some ways a departure for Erpenbeck, the core concerns of her fiction reverberate in the desperate situation of the African refugees. Uprooted by forces beyond their control, their lives are irremediably split into a then and a now. Crucially, it is Richard’s East German past, the novel makes clear, that gives him an experiential affinity with them: “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.” In this sense he knows firsthand what it’s like to be a stranger there; even now he has trouble finding his way around the parts of Berlin he still calls “the West.” His perspective on the Wende, as the epochal turning point of reunification is known in German, helps him relate to the Africans with a compassion that seems to come less naturally to those who haven’t had their world upended.
Kairos, published in English earlier this year, is Erpenbeck’s first novel of the Wende itself. It recounts a love affair in East Berlin during the years preceding and just after reunification. In 1986, when Katharina and Hans meet by chance on a bus and spend their first rapturous night together as Mozart’s Requiem plays on his turntable, she is nineteen, and he 53. A married man with a teenage son and another mistress, Hans is a prominent writer and radio broadcaster who has renounced his boyhood indoctrination in the Hitler Youth by zealously embracing the socialist project. Katharina, a theater design student, is a child of East Germany who grew up with the Berlin Wall built into the landscape of her everyday life. They plunge into a consuming mutual passion that turns sour long before it ends.
Their doomed liaison and the collapse of the GDR interpenetrate on multiple levels. As the future of their country appears increasingly uncertain, so too does any promise of happiness their relationship once held—indeed, in its drawn-out demise, it exhibits the very symptoms that are eating away at East German society: deception, paranoia, cruelty, surveillance and control. After Katharina confesses to Hans that she has slept with a man her own age, the tactics of domination and retaliation he wields against her are the very ones he has learned from a state built on mistrust: interrogating her relentlessly about every detail of her betrayal, demanding unfettered access to the contents of her diary (she begins keeping a second, secret diary, exemplifying the boundary between private sentiments and public expression that East Germans had to maintain), forcing her to listen to cassette tapes on which he berates and shames her over and over for the irreparable harm she has done. By this point he has long since introduced sadomasochism into their erotic encounters, striking her with his belt and later with a riding crop. But whatever pleasure either of them derive from the ritual is dulled by his castigatory recitations, which are as petty, hypocritical and bullying as they are tediously repetitious. The aim isn’t enjoyment but its punitive abolition, turning guilt and blame into instruments of power. In this way, Erpenbeck implies, the malign conduct of a regime characterized by suspicion and repression poisons even the most intimate relations between its citizens.
Still, when the Wall falls, Katharina and Hans, unmoored by all the drastic change and loss in their lives, cling to their deteriorating romance. Like Richard in Go, Went, Gone, Hans finds himself exiled in his own land: “During the Nazi era, numerous German writers from Bertolt Brecht to Thomas Mann left their home. Now it’s the other way around: his home is leaving him, while he’s not going anywhere.” Soon his job disappears along with those of “all the other 13,000 employees of the broadcasting services of a state that no longer exists.” His next book is also postponed indefinitely, leading him to conclude: “So the crossing of the white line and the cheap wine that can be bought everywhere since the currency union is being paid for in existential uncertainty.”
Katharina, too, is deeply destabilized. Walking around in the West, she feels like “a bad copy of the people who live there, an impostor, a cheat, liable to be exposed at any moment. With her eyes, which in this other half of the city are a stranger’s eyes, she sees how every conceivable need is catered for by some product or other in the shops, the freedom to consume seems like an India rubber wall to her, separating people from any yearnings that might transcend their personal and momentary wishes. Is she about to be another customer?” In their unease, disorientation and estrangement, Katharina and Hans prolong their relationship, however pernicious it has become, as a tattered vestige of the familiar.
Though the narrative point of view moves back and forth between the two lovers, a prologue invites us to read the novel as coextensive with Katharina’s retrospective examination of her past, prompted decades later by Hans’s death and the arrival of two boxes containing mementos of their time together (the novel is divided into two main sections with the headings Box I and Box II). Katharina’s thoughts as she prepares to sift through the boxes give the book its title:
Kairos, the god of fortunate moments, is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him. Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is sleek and hairless, nowhere to grab hold of. Was it a fortunate moment, then, when she, just nineteen, first met Hans?
Toward the end of the novel, the same question is implicitly raised with regard to the disintegration of the GDR. Was Kairos presiding over that moment? Or did he slip away, or get snatched away, from the grasp of the people who had sought to create a better future for themselves?
Describing the short interval after the border opened on November 9, 1989, and before the absorption of the East by the West became a fait accompli, Erpenbeck writes: “Everything is collapsing. Some of it crumbled, some was smashed, some repurposed.” The energies released by the breakdown had not yet solidified into a new form. What would come next remained a “live question up until March 18,” when the GDR held its first free parliamentary elections. By the time the new parliament decided to abolish itself, the exuberance of indeterminate potentiality had turned into “a steel corset”:
What just a moment ago was fizzing and dangling and reeling has now become an object of considerations whose origin and meaning are unknown in the East. … People who experienced the heady rush of self-empowerment in the winter and early spring, now, instead of hammering out brand-new concepts, would be best advised to be studying books of West German laws.
In other words, East Germans, whose possibilities had been constrained by their former system, now needed to adapt as quickly as they could to the new one, to teach themselves how to be West Germans. When Katharina returns to Berlin after taking advantage of the new freedom of travel by going on a trip to Venice, she suspects that becoming a Westerner is tantamount to becoming a consumer: “Coca-Cola has succeeded, where Marxist philosophy has failed, at uniting the proletarians of all nations under its banner. Is this home? … She returned to Berlin, but Berlin is now a different city.”
It is not the final disillusionment of the novel. In an epilogue that takes place after Hans’s death, Katharina discovers from his Stasi file that he had been treacherous not only in his marriage and personal life, but also in his professional sphere. He had collaborated with the secret police by spying on his colleagues in East Germany’s cultural arena. Together, the prologue and epilogue frame the novel as a multilayered inquiry into what it means to grieve something that is irretrievably gone but that you wouldn’t actually want back, to feel homesick for a place to which you wouldn’t want to return even if you could. Perhaps the real grief is for wishes and hopes that were erased together with the world that had failed to realize them.
Not even German has a word for this particular emotion. Perhaps because most serious contemporary German writers—for good reason—are wary of nostalgia, Erpenbeck, though in fact no less wary, is unique in her intense if ambivalent engagement with it. She not only probes nostalgia as an ongoing preoccupation, but also embeds it in the very texture of her fiction—from her descriptions of place to her evocations of mood.
The East Berlin of Kairos is characterized by lively cafes, thriving theaters, energetic conversations about art and poetry and, as Katharina realizes when she visits family in the West and sees beggars living on the street, the lack of unemployment and homelessness (not to mention the infatuation with money and consumerism, the prevalence of which after the Wende makes its absence beforehand stand out). In this respect, Kairos belongs to a—sometimes contentious—contemporary shift in portrayals of the GDR, the most notable example of which is Katja Hoyer’s recent history of East Germany, Beyond the Wall. Like Erpenbeck, Hoyer is interested in complicating the picture of East Germany that has taken hold in the Western imagination as a dismal, gray, monolithic, dystopian police state (“Stasiland”), instead paying closer attention to daily life, culture and the internal contradictions of a society that can’t be reduced exclusively to its worst features. The point is not to downplay the reprehensible, but to see it within a broader spectrum of East German experiences. How else are we to comprehend a story like that of Katharina and Hans? Or Erpenbeck’s own declaration, reminiscing about her childhood in Not a Novel: “And so, yes, I loved that ugly, supposedly gray East Berlin, forgotten by the whole world but familiar to me, which doesn’t exist anymore”? Loved, she suggests, not simply for the good memories mixed in with what anyone could see was bad, but above all because it was familiar.
The sudden shattering of that sense of familiarity inspired Erpenbeck to write fiction about such disconcerting and at times terrifying encounters with the abyss between before and after. Her work seems to have been building toward Kairos, which is her most direct and sustained depiction of the historical rift she herself lived through and thus her most explicitly personal novel.
The English version of Kairos does something further that the German original doesn’t: it reinvents Erpenbeck’s prose style. The history of a writer’s works in translation is subject to its own vicissitudes, and with Kairos Erpenbeck’s English-language oeuvre has undergone, if not a Wende, a consequential change. Instead of coming to us from the hand of Susan Bernofsky, who until now translated all Erpenbeck’s fiction into English (the nonfiction Not a Novel was finely translated by Kurt Beals), it is translated by Michael Hofmann. Both are exceptionally gifted translators, albeit with strikingly distinct approaches. From The Story of the Old Child to Go, Went, Gone, Bernofsky’s unifying sensibility gave Anglophone readers the impression of a single evolving literary voice, generated by the interplay of consistencies and fluctuations across a series of five books. Although the break in this continuity represented by Hofmann’s Kairos is jarring, it’s a valuable reminder of how decisively our reception of literature in translation is influenced by the translator’s creative choices.
Consider Bernofsky’s rendering of a long complex sentence at the opening of The End of Days, in which a mother throws earth into her dead infant’s grave:
Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words: oh, Mother—she too was slowly being suffocated by the dirt falling into her mouth.
The form of this sentence is closely bound to its content, calling forth one vision of the child’s future after another, only to bury each in its turn—a microcosm of the novel’s narrative structure as a whole. Bernofsky’s translation of the sentence is typical of her sensitivity to the expressive character of Erpenbeck’s syntax. In the original, the sentence is constructed so that the child’s unlived lives are suspended within subclauses. Bernofsky uses participial phrases—“running off to school…”; “playing the piano…”—to achieve the same effect, whereby the stress insistently falls with a drumbeat of finality on the images of covering, smothering and silencing.
The repetitions, the incantatory rhythm, the precise and unadorned diction—all these are essential qualities of the German text that Bernofsky has taken pains to reproduce in English. Anglophone critics have frequently taken note of the austerity of Erpenbeck’s language, describing it as restrained, unvarnished, unruffled, in contrast to the distress and turmoil it coolly conveys. We owe the effectiveness of this style just as much to Bernofsky, whose techniques so artfully recreate it.
What distinguishes Hofmann’s approach throughout Kairos is his playfulness with the stylistic possibilities of English, his delight in making unexpected choices, his promiscuous sampling from a wide array of idioms and his occasional provocative or even brazen self-assertion. He forgoes plain equivalents of plain German phrases like “lived with her lover,” “looks like one of those things” and “a pretty mole next to her nose,” offering instead “shacked up with her lover,” “reminds her of one of those awful thingummies” and “a pretty smut by her nose.” Here are three longer examples, followed in parentheses by word-for-word translations of the German:
Involuntarily, he sings the Latin words, even as his hands discover that her bottom fits neatly into them, a peach to each.
(Involuntarily, he sings along with the Latin text, while his hands determine [messen: measure, gauge] that one of her buttocks fits into each of them.)
The dilettantes in the Politburo are cock-a-hoop, but all it means is that the GDR isn’t worth a clip around the earhole anymore.
(The dilettantes in the Politburo celebrate this, he says, and yet all it means is that to the West the GDR is no longer even worth a kick in the ass.)
The misery of the unhappy shopper may be seen from the forlorn gesture with which she picks up the desideratum and looks at it in utter perplexity: the much-vaunted freedom of choice is a new can of worms.
(All the agony of unhappy buyers can be read from the gesture with which they lift the longed-for articles of clothing into the air and look up at them in perplexity: the freedom of choice is a hell all its own.)
There’s an air of mischief and ostentation about some of these maneuvers, as if Hofmann is defying the supposedly obligatory self-effacement of the translator by practicing an unashamedly individualistic mode of translation. Rather than subsuming himself in the language of the other, he makes his own predilections—and by extension his very presence—conspicuous.
However much Hofmann and Bernofsky differ as translators of Erpenbeck, there’s no reason that their translations can’t be evaluated on their own merits. What is undeniable is the sharp contrast between the reading experiences shaped by their efforts. For English-speaking readers, Kairos is not just a meditation on rupture, but also an instance of it.