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26 March 2015

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.

By Neel Mukherjee

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.

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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.

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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