From Jenny Erpenbeck's primary-school playground on Leipziger Strasse in East Berlin, you could look up and tell the time from the clock of the Axel Springer building in the "capitalist" West. She grew up, just on the eastern side of the city's world-dividing barrier, in streets "which all ended in a wall".
That seemed natural. History's great knife had come and carved a jagged scar across reality. On one side of that wound, by chance, people were meant to flourish. Time obeyed a different rhythm there and life hurried forward. On the other, so many people thought, it dawdled, or had stopped. Europe's post-war destiny, so the Cold War story went, had delivered two classes of human beings, and she along with every other citizen of the "German Democratic Republic" belonged on a lower rung. "For me, it's an experience that formed my thinking and character: to have been on the wrong or the poor side," she says. "You get a feeling of how it is to be in the shadows."
Earlier this week, Jenny Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her novel The End of Days. She shares the £10,000 award, supported by Arts Council England, Book Trust and Champagne Taittinger, with translator Susan Bernofsky. A compact epic of one woman's potential paths through the fatal labyrinth of 20th-century Europe, the novel – her third book to appear in English – prevailed against a powerful shortlist. It included works by Haruki Murakami, Daniel Kehlmann, Erwin Mortier, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and – the Colombian gem which the judges honoured with a special commendation – Tomas Gonzalez's In the Beginning was the Sea.
The End of Days and its immaculate translation have already won a rapturous reception in Britain. Neel Mukherjee dubs Erpenbeck "the most brilliant European writer of my generation"; Kapka Kassabova hails her "Chekhovian talent"; Chloe Aridjis calls the novel "startling and profound". It is beautiful, humane and quite unforgettable, as our heroine meets and then dodges extinction across the killing-fields of the century, from a Jewish shtetl in pre-Great War Galicia to starving 1920s Vienna, Stalin's Moscow and that East Germany where history did not end. Cheating fate, our heroine plays chance against necessity, hope against despair, as she gazes time and again at "the entrance into the underworld".
Freedom and fate entwine. Just as closely, giant forces wind around personal experience. Erpenbeck seeks to unravel "the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature… can infiltrate a private face". She makes her readers feel the weight of history that pulses through every thump and flutter of the heart.
Erpenbeck's parents were classic GDR intellectuals – her father a philosopher, her mother a translator – critical of state repression but still idealists. A little farther back lay the ordeals of her grandparents' generation, which The End of Days channels: anti-Semitism, Communist revolt, flight from the Nazis and a perilous sojourn in the USSR. Childhood in war-ravaged East Berlin offered, against that turmoil, a sweet normality. In a lyrical memoir, "Homesick for Sadness", she remembers the "small-town peacefulness... a sense of being at home in a closed-off and for that reason entirely safe world".
"For me," she explained when we talked at the book-stacked Berlin apartment where she lives with her musician husband and son, not far from the old route of the Wall along Bernauer Strasse, "the main impression, when I look back, was that I felt safe… You could not buy so many things so you didn't need money. And the most important things – bread, butter, books, musical scores – these were very cheap."
Born in 1967, Erpenbeck studied to be an opera director at Humboldt University. Her artistically-inclined friends knew that, come what may, they would at least make a living. Above all, "Money was not a topic. It was not interesting."
To cherish memories, as her fiction often does, is not to sanitise the system that framed them. "People say, you're being sentimental about the terrible GDR regime. It isn't that," she insists. "It's the feeling of loss – that we lost everything, the good and the bad." On the night the Wall fell in 1989, Erpenbeck spent a quiet evening with friends. The next day, she didn't believe the news because, in the GDR, you never did. "It made you very sceptical about the system." Even after it became clear that East Berliners could now travel freely, Erpenbeck chose to stay. "I refused to be in the position of the one who was grateful."
From work in opera and theatre, she moved into fiction. In the eerie fables of The Old Child and The Book of Words, the totalitarian past strays into the realm of fairy-tale. Erpenbeck builds not sagas but mosaics, each radiant fragment exquisitely aligned with the rest. She grew up, after all, in a landscape of shards, rubble and wreckage. "As I child, I loved the ruins," she writes in her essay, "Homesick for Sadness". "They were secret places, unoccupied places where the weeds grew as high as your knees, and where no grown-ups would follow you."
Out of those ruins her fiction fashions its beauty and its truth. And the shattered history that her heroine must survive in The End of Days has not yet arrived at any terminus. The exiles and refugees who stalk her work live among us now, still harassed and despised.
Recently, Erpenbeck has been working hard to help – with health care, employment, legal advice– a large group of African migrants in Berlin, flung out of Libya after Gaddafi's fall and now threatened with dispersal and isolation. The hostility they face, in a country thronged with survivors and fugitives from the "shadow side" of history, disturbs her. People whose own family story tells them what it is like "not to be allowed to have a life" should never close their minds to migrant suffering, she says. Our past of harm, and of hope, stretches into another unknowable future. We have not reached the end of days.
'The End of Days' is published in paperback by Portobello Books (£8.99)Reuse content