Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

The End of Days 
Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated by Susan Bernofsky (from German)
2012, I read 2014 ebook version
239 pages, meditation, family, politics, life and death

A baby dies and the family falls apart.
But what if it didn't?
A young woman commits suicide after being rejected in love.
But what if she didn't?
A German emigre to the Soviet Union is accused of Trotskyism and sent to a work camp, where she dies.
But what if she wasn't?
A famous East German writer dies falling down the stairs.
But what if she didn't?
The same woman dies comfortably in a nursing home at the ripe age of 90.

Jenny Erpenbeck's novel traces the life of a woman in Europe during the 20th century, and, specifically, how she could have died at different parts in her life and what the fallout would be for those around her. The author gives us five scenarios, connected by musings on how things could have turned out differently, if, for example, she had gone down the stairs five minutes later. Then, the following section assumes that she had not died, and the alternative scenario is the one that actually happened.

It's sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book for grown-ups.

In less capable hands, this style of writing could have turned into a terrible gimmick. But Erpenbeck manages to pull it off, all while including some beautiful commentary about the connections between people and the role of history in our lives. While not my favorite book from the IFFP longlist, I can understand why it has such widespread appeal.

Life and death

Every person has an infinite number of connections with others, whether they know it or not. So all of our actions affect others' lives. And, as this book indicates, these connections are thrown into sharp focus when, suddenly, someone died and/or is no longer there.

Erpenbeck spends this whole book chasing these connections, highlighting when and how they could have been different if something else would have happened. Of all the sections, my favorite was the fifth one, in which the main character is in a nursing home in Berlin. Her son goes to Vienna, where she grew up, but, since she never told him anything about her history, he doesn't really know what to buy for her or where to go. By accident, he wanders into a secondhand shop, where a small grandfather clock is for sale. This clock belonged to his Jewish great-grandmother, who was sent to a concentration camp during WWII. But of course, he does not know about this clock's significance; he thinks about buying it, but ends up buying something else instead. This beautifully ironic missed connection demonstrates just one of the connections we have to others, of which we are completely unaware.

Truth and lies

Many of this novel's characters are concealing truths from their family members and others. For example, our main character decides not to tell her son who his father is, or what happened to her husband. She prefers to imply that they are the same person (spoiler: they're not), and that he "Fell in the Battle of Karkov." It is unclear what benefit this deception offers to either of them, and yet she chooses not to talk about it. In the fourth section, her son meets his father only after his mother's funeral; if his mother does not die then, it seems that he never finds out who his father is.

I found this stubborn refusal to tell members of the family important information really tiresome. Why not just tell him and get it over with? Is it really that important to keep a secret? I suppose that a lot of people go through life lying to the people around them, but I can't comprehend how these characters can live this way.

As a novel

While I mostly enjoyed this book, by the time I read it I was quite tired of reading German literature for the IFFP. Perhaps because of my fatigue relating to the Second World War, I found large parts of this novel exceedingly boring, especially the third section when the main character is in Soviet Russia.

Many of the other shadow panelists enjoyed this book far more than I did. It is one of only two books that made it onto both the Shadow Panel and official shortlist, probably because of its apparent widespread appeal. However, it was not my favorite, and I would prefer if one of the other books won.

The End of Days is available for purchase from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart, or wherever books are sold. 

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