The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, book review: One start and five endings

Erpenbeck has important things to tell us; and she tells them beautifully

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Exploring themes of time, memory, loss, and fate, The End of Days builds on Jenny Erpenbeck’s already impressive body of work

It also taps into some of the key motifs of our post-modern, relativistic age. The novel is constructed around the character of a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five “books” Erpenbeck examines the alternative courses the woman’s life might have taken, its various possible conclusions, and the impact of those outcomes on others.

This is not fundamentally an original conceit: there is a touch of David Mitchell here, among others. But Erpenbeck’s writing is so powerful and so poetic – and her story-telling so nuanced – that there is no sense of staleness about either the narrative or the ideas behind it.

From her birth we follow versions of Erpenbeck’s protagonist to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. At every stage we witness a possible death and are thus confronted continually by both mortality and hope.

Indeed, what Erpenbeck captures perfectly in The End of Days is the urgency by which our lives are pushed forward, yet on the other hand the transitory, perhaps futile, nature of human existence. In that paradox, it is chance which often holds the balance of power in determining the course we take.

The novel is firmly rooted in European traditions and, by following its central player through the continent’s century of torment, it offers insights into Europe’s recent history to rival literary greats.

Having taken her heroine through four deaths – in childhood; as a heart-broken teenager; as the victim of a frozen Soviet prison camp; and from a fall just as her star is at its height in East Berlin – Erpenbeck finally introduces us to the frail and forgotten Frau Hoffmann, at last granted a name by which we can identify her.

The portrayal that follows, of old age, is masterful, as the elderly residents of Frau Hoffmann’s nursing home contemplate the separation of the selves they used to be from the selves they are now. One recalls her post-war trek to Berlin with three children and, in a summation of the novel’s perceptiveness about the impact of time passing realises: “No one can quite imagine what that means any more”.

Erpenbeck has important things to tell us; and she tells them beautifully.

Comments