The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (trans Susan Bernofsky). $22.95, 256 pp. New Directions.
For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence plays havoc with the lives of ordinary people. There is no conventional plot, no obvious hero or heroine. In fact, the closest we come to a protagonist dies as a baby in the very first sentence—”The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave”—only to have life breathed back into her later in the book. That child then grows up to live, in Galicia, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Berlin, through a catalogue of 20th-century horrors. We follow her sometimes, though sometimes we drift far away from her, wondering, while in the minds and experiences of other characters, whether she’s still there at all.
This unconventional narrative technique will be familiar to readers of Visitation, Erpenbeck’s last translated novel (in German, Heimsuchung), which brought her almost universally acclaimed work to new readers. The central character of that book was a house, one which just so happened to witness, in miniature, the breadth of complicated East German history in the last hundred years and more. By making her protagonist a silent witness, this allowed the author to sidestep many of the clichés of wartime stories, particularly those wars which have been written and rewritten in novels so many times—while also allowing her to explore the full range of her literary and historical interests. Erpenbeck has said she doesn’t seek to write historically, but starts with something personal and then invariably finds this was shaped by past events. In her fiction, she chases down these events. The difference between Visitation and The End of Days is: in this case it’s impossible to know which of them actually happened.
The effect of layering possibility over possibility is, eventually, dizzying, even for the most attentive reader. Though she manages the trick most of the time; despite learning quite early on that each plot point may be about to un-happen at any moment, the author manages to keep it vivid, make it seem real. So each time the fate of our heroine is sealed, we live it as if it we could be sure of it. And yet, each time it’s temporary. Erpenbeck lets a possibility unravel, running with a “maybe” to its natural conclusion, only to call it back in at the last moment, wrap up the ball of string tight once more, as if the last narrative never happened (which perhaps it didn’t), before taking the novel in another direction entirely. And these directions are not always about key personal moments—how a woman may be tricked into prostitution, for example, or escape it—Erpenbeck often concentrates on the world in miniature. She makes her possible worlds real by carefully selecting the tiniest details of human behavior, or landscape, and offering them up for close attention. Readers of her previous books will not be surprised to find this one is written with grace, delicacy, and no shortage of raw power. Those coming to her work for the first time may be surprised at just how bleak it is.
In Erpenbeck’s fiction, her characters are at the mercy of their century. There’s little hope in battle here, no possibility in fighting the regime, whichever one you happen to be under. (Hitler, Stalin, and several others influence events from off-stage, though smaller powers rule characters’ lives too.) Yes, you may be able to cheat fate in the short term—for example, save your dying infant by rubbing snow on it, to trigger breathing once more—but that only serves to stave off tragedy for while, before that too is reborn in some other horrendous way further down the line. So awful is it in fact that some readers may wonder if the central character of the book, that vulnerable newborn buried on page one, might not have been better off quietly fading away after all rather than surviving to become the elderly, confused woman who features in the final pages, worrying that somehow “the trace will be lost.” So dark is this work, so unremittingly hopeless in places, that each time the narrative rewinds, ready to throw readers into some other maybe-future, you can’t help but hold your breath, fearful of which direction our heroine (the baby in Galicia/the Communist sent to a Siberian camp/the East German Writer) will be hurled in next. And it does feel like hurling. In desperation, the mother of that dead child muses on the meaning of it all:
The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better would it be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.
If you’re left with one thing in the wake of this novel then it is surely this: the smallness of individual endeavor, the pointlessness of resistance. Which is my only gripe with it. Artfully done though it undoubtedly is, carefully rendered word to word, The End of Days is an exhausting, draining read. Whether ruled by chance or by a God, there seems little prospect here for those footholds mentioned here to harden into something really worth clinging onto. And yet, because the rise and fall of each tragic image is so clear and believable, it’s an oddly beautiful hopelessness.
Meanwhile, some more prosaic concerns. It’s often difficult to work out exactly who is who in The End of Days, and I’m unashamed to admit that sometimes I did lose track, having to retrace my steps by several pages or more, to understand the necessary links and overlaps between characters in their various possible futures and pasts. Why? Mostly because names are rarely used, identities muddied. Given Erpenbeck is famously such a precise writer, it’s hard to believe this is an accident, or a translator’s weakness. (Susan Bernofsky, also the translator of Visitation, is greatly admired by Erpenbeck, who has called her versions “perfect.”) So readers are forced to see these ambiguities, these many vaguely-referred-to men, women, Comrades and associates of the cast who are usually just identified in terms of their relation to others (“daughter of,” “mother of,” “son of”) as fluid in some way, if not interchangeable. The woman called Frau Hoffman in the final pages, and who has experienced so many identities since her funeral in the first sentence, has barely been labeled as such before. The author prefers to write “she,” or “her,” blending this woman in with all the other she’s and her’s who also, no doubt, have lives that could have gone a thousand different ways. Could this be related to the fact, as our protagonist notes, that the Jews “knew what they were doing when they decided never to call God by his name?” Is even the naming of things somehow suspect? Certainly it feels like Erpenbeck is nudging us towards that conclusion.
In her interview with Mieke Chew for Issue 30 of The Quarterly Conversation, with reference to her earlier The Book of Words, Erpenbeck discussed the challenges for any person of looking back on their past: “It’s always a hard task to figure out retrospectively what was ‘you’ and what was ‘you’ made by others,” she said. This quote interests me because another way of seeing The End of Days is as a tug of war between each character’s “you” and the “you” they are pushed toward by their times, their governments, their financial hardships, and family ties. In that same interview she discussed how research lived at the heart of her creativity as an artist, often the mesh of broader historical research and research into her own family life being the starting point for her works. At the time she was writing what became The End of Days, so it’s relevant to note that the author’s own family made the journey from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin, the same route which the fractured, fragmented heroine of this novel also takes.
Or does she? Does she instead die in the first sentence, leaving the rest of the novel as just speculation? And if so, does that speculation lead anywhere, or does it merely remind us that understanding destiny is impossible? In Jenny Erpenbeck’s world, it’s hard to be sure of very much at all. Except, perhaps, that for the time you spend reading her books, you’re in the company of one of the most skilled, rare and relentless fictional talents currently alive and at work. Of that there is little doubt.
Rodge Glass is the author of three novels, a graphic novel and a literary biography, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2009. He currently works as Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.
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