The End of Days.
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Live through this: Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel makes us question death - and life

The End of Days kills its protagonist five times in a novel grounded in the turbulence of 20th-century Europe.

The End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck; translated by Susan Bernofsky
Portobello Books, 241pp, £12.99

The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation (published in English in 2010), dispensed with one of the cornerstones of the realist novel, character, and instead chose to have as its protagonist – if that’s the right word – a piece of land by a lake in Brandenburg. The conceit allowed her, in little over 150 dense and astonishing pages, to give her readers a startlingly powerful glimpse into the troubled history of 20th-century Germany, with the land (and a house on it) as the stage.

In her latest novel, The End of Days (the German title, Aller Tage Abend, literally translates as “Night All Day”), Erpenbeck deepens the project she began with Visitation, achieving something even more imaginatively daring with the concept of character. She makes an eight-month-old girl die in the first of five books that comprise the novel, then brings her back to life in the second book, making her die this time in her late teenage years, and resurrects her in the third, killing her off when she is pushing 40 . . . and so on, until the final book ends with the death of the woman in a care home in her nineties.

This confronts us with the fundamental issue of the unitary nature of character in a novel: is the central figure of the woman in The End of Days one person or five? In
what sense can we even use the term “character”, something implying lifelike (or realistic) continuity and development, when this book deliberately sets out to deny those? Yet, despite this, Erpenbeck manages to suffuse her book with affect, one of the main reasons for character in the realist novel. It is baffling and somewhat miraculous that she can manage to elicit an emotional response towards the various and extraordinarily moving destinies of the woman while tearing up the realist rule book on sustained character development; it seems counter-intuitive, almost impossible. How does she do it?

Even more significant than how this device makes us question some of the philosophical foundations of selfhood is the way in which it aids Erpenbeck in shining a merciless light on some of the nodal moments of European history, each time achieving something aslant, surprising and profound. From the persecution of Jews in early-20th-century Galicia, through the Great War and the depredations of Soviet communism, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanys, history has rarely seemed so present or been dramatised in fiction in such original ways.

The musical structure of the book – five books (or movements) with an intermezzo inserted between each – allows Erpenbeck to introduce a measure of wit that sits in arresting counterpoint to the bleakness of the events she describes. The intermezzi offer a counterfactual reversal of the death we have just witnessed and determine the increment of life given to the woman in consequent books.

Not for a single sentence does this arrangement become schematic. Instead, it is both playful and profound – playful because it makes transparent a fundamental work of novelists, namely the extent of authorial fiat involved in the fates of characters; profound because of Erpenbeck’s sustained working out of the idea that: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” While T S Eliot’s meditation (in Four Quartets) is mystical-philosophical, Erpenbeck’s is grounded in theories of history – which, after all, unfolds in time – and the turbulent realities of 20th-century Europe.

Someone in book one, while watching the sleeping face of his wife, tries

to get to the bottom of what has seemed to him the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature – such as war, famine . . . – can infiltrate a private face . . . [T]he secession of Hungary, say, might result in a pair of lips bitten raw in the case of one particular woman . . . [T]here is a constant translation between the far outside and deep within . . . the only language valid across the world and for all time.

Here lies the nerve centre of Erpenbeck’s vision, a rich comprehension of the inextricable enmeshment of the public and the private.

Michel Foucault outlined a theory of human beings as historical subjects in both senses of the word: we are the thinking subjects, the actors, of history, at the same time as we are subjected to the forces and processes of history. Erpenbeck, heir to Bernhard and Sebald, writers who have mightily portrayed the imprint of history on the individual, finely calibrates this thesis in her fiction. There is no one writing now who is quite like her, possessing such an understanding of the deep currents of history while gifted with the ability to do such extraordinary things with form. In Susan Bernofsky’s lucid, seamless translation, The End of Days emerges as a necessary and illuminating novel, alight with intelligence and meaning.

Neel Mukherjee’s novel “The Lives of Others” is published by Chatto & Windus

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage