The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
We’ve actually read quite a lot of translated fiction in recent years in our Book Group, including: a good handful of French books, a wodge of Scandi-crime, a pair of Dutch ones, and an Arabic novel just last month, among assorted others. Our German reads have tended to be classic – All Quiet… and The Jew’s Beech. The only other German book we’ve read was Anna Funder’s fascinating work of memoir/reportage Stasiland. (All links to my reviews). When we chose The End of Days for our July read, it had just won the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), so we had high hopes for it, knowing that the book had been received so well everywhere.
It’s fair to say that The End of Days wasn’t a hit with our Book Group at all. Around half the group didn’t finish it, the other half read it but didn’t really enjoy it for a variety of reasons; I did finish it, but it left me rather cold. Before I discuss it further however, a very brief introduction for those of you still yet to read it:
It’s the story of one woman’s various lives through the 20th century moving from Galicia to pre-war Vienna to communist Moscow to present day Berlin. In each of the novel’s five ‘Books’, she dies. In between each book is an ‘Intermezzo’ which shows ways in which she could have carried on living, before picking one to continue with. It begins at a grave:
The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. 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 father; 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 in her mouth. Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave: a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said: oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again …
The quote, above – which forms the opening two thirds of the novel’s first paragraph, illustrates both the ambitious structure and the stylised prose of the novel to come. You’re not sure whose grave it is, a child’s, a mother’s, a grandmother’s or an embodiment of all three generations, whether they actually lived or their lives could have been lived.
It moves on to recount the life of a young Jewish woman who had married a goy. Their baby died, and the husband ran off to New York. In the Intermezzo, the baby is revived into breathing again by the shock of a handful of snow on its chest and lives – to die again in 1919 – and so on.
Given that most of us had read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here), which also explores multiple lives, we couldn’t help but compare and contrast a little, especially as they were probably written contemporaneously. Whereas Atkinson’s main character Ursula is reborn each time she dies and lives her life again from the beginning with just little differences which often lead to quite different outcomes, Erpenbeck’s unnamed woman moves on by not dying and one path forward out of several possibles is picked for her. Erpenbeck’s process is philosophically more demanding, but it lacks the drama of being able to spot the differences in the lives lived by Ursula.
As a group, we could understand why, but also were very frustrated by Erpenbeck’s refusal to name her characters. It was all very well for some deliberate confusion to exist over which generation of the main character’s family we were following sometimes – the mother, the grandmother, but by the time we got to the Russian section and met Comrade H and Comrade V, it was wearing – and then in the final book, some of the supporting characters get proper names – but the main family of the narrative remained nameless. This aloofness made it hard for us to bond with them.
Although the novel nearly lost most of us in the Moscow section, we all agreed that the prose was quite beautiful in parts and showed the translator’s skill. The deliberate repetitions (as in the quote above with the ‘three handfuls’) give it a certain poetry, (a device I remember loving at one point in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Solider – review here) especially when read in short segments, but became, well, repetitive when used too often in this book.
In summary, The End of Days was a book to admire rather than love, we felt. (6.5/10)
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Although I read this book in July, I’m reviewing it in August – which is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. She is keeping tabs on things and there will be a large variety of wonderful posts on her blog this month about the subject.
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans Susan Bernofsky. Portobello books (2014), paperback, 280 pages.