I’m a great fan of German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. With novels like The End of Days and Go, Went, Gone, and her non-fiction collection Not a Novel, she’s acquired for me the status of public intellectual, a sort of German equivalent of our English-speaking novelist and thinker Zadie Smith. Her most recent novel, Kairos, is set in the dying days of communist East Germany, and shows its characters caught up in the maelstrom of history. Yet it’s a love story too, with all the intimacy and romantic intensity of that genre – what reader is not drawn in by the idea of Kairos, the Greek idea of the special moment, the opportune time, that chance encounter, to be seized or lost forever?
This is East Berlin in 1986 and it’s real Boy Meets Girl stuff – furtive glances on a bus, getting off at the same stop, finding they’re both en route to the Hungarian Cultural Centre, going for coffee together when they discover it’s closed. There’s an instant attraction that’s rapidly deepened through a shared loved of music. They listen to Chopin and the Requiem on the night they meet, having returned together to Hans’ marital home. Yes, he’s married, to a scientist named Ingrid, with one son, Ludwig, and is in fact anything but a Boy – he’s 53 to Katharina’s 19 years.
Hans’ family life poses few problems for their affair: if anything, the snatched meetings and clandestine phone calls add a frisson of excitement. Hans is, after all, a past master at extra-maritals: he’s quite open, almost bragging, to Katharina about his previous girlfriends. But he seems to have really fallen for her, and there are heady descriptions of their meetings in the cafes and streets of East Berlin that will warm the hearts of those who know that city. Yet their age difference plays a role from the beginning, and it’s one of control, as Hans, a professional writer and music broadcaster, attempts to mould Katharina’s taste, encouraging her to throw out her Rachmaninoff and Mendelssohn LPs, suggesting she surely should be studying graphics and painting, rather than commercial art. Just as worrying, for this reader, are his sexual demands, these scenes posing so well the complex questions around consent.
When Katharina goes to Frankfurt an der Oder for an internship at the theatre, their relationship takes a new turn. Katharina commutes back to Berlin to see Hans when she can, but is becoming absorbed in her life and work at the theatre – I really enjoyed this account of the theatre world – and develops a friendship with her colleague Vadim. When Hans finds out she’s slept with him, his fury knows no bounds, and his control over Katharina turns to abuse of a quite extraordinary nature. He sends her cassette tapes with hours and hours of his voice lambasting, accusing, guilt-tripping and humiliating her for the wrong she has done to him and their perfect love. She shaves her head in shame, like the French femmes tondues, and sits alone in her apartment listening to this stuff.
Now, that’s a very brief summary of the love affair, and there are plenty of other twists and turns in the course of it. In a way more interesting to me is the awareness of history, and the layers of history, threading through the account. These layers lie in the very physical bricks and mortar of the city. In Berlin, there’s the new cathedral dome, erected in the 1980s, reflected in the bronze windows of the Palast der Republik, an iconic cultural centre in the GDR, since pulled down. Hans mentions the Friedrichstadtpalast, the original 19th century theatre closed down in 1980, and rebuilt for opening in 1985. It’s significant that it’s Katharina who’s more aware of the bricks and mortar in the West. She remembers looking out as a child from the landing of her high-rise across the Berlin Wall to the Axel Springer building in West Berlin. When she gets permission to visit her relatives in the West, she’s keen to see Cologne cathedral, while Hans is dismissive, saying the domes in the Kremlin are just as good. Even on a trip to Moscow, they can’t escape the hand of history. They’re awed by the grandeur of Red Square, but can’t ignore the Hotel Metropol and Lubyanka prison, notorious sites of KGB cruelty, which remain stubbornly in view, whichever way they turn.
It’s Moscow, the East, which is Hans’ El Dorado, yet the writer, succinct as ever, calls it his steingewordene Hoffnung – his petrified hope, (my translation), suggesting Hans is clinging on to a world view that is outdated and can’t move on. And the differences in the lovers’ East / West outlook is symptomatic of a more generalised difference between the generations, explored at times head-on, at others more subtly, just seeping through the pages. We’re well in to the novel when we’re told Hans’ back story, which shifts our view of him a little. His family were Baltic Germans, ejected from Riga, and then from Posen, during the massive population upheavals of the Second World War. As a child he endured not only years of instability and fear, but also harsh beatings from a cruel Nazi father. No wonder then, that he sought out East Berlin at the end of the war, the ruined city promising the possibility of rebirth into the fairer and more equal society that communism offered.
But it’s not just Hans whose behaviour and attitudes are shown as symptomatic of their generation. There’s a kind of social liberalism amongst his contemporaries too, for whom extra-marital affairs seem to be run of the mill, however much damage they cause – and we do glimpse poor Ludwig, a character somewhat offstage, very upset by the antics of the adults. Even Katharina’s parents are, to my mind, astonishingly unfazed about their 19 year old daughter having an affair with a married man 34 years her senior. It’s Katharina’s friends and cousins who say what on earth are you doing with that old man? Das bringt nichts!
It’s only in the last section of the novel, when we come to 1989, that external political developments move centre stage. The narrative broadens out to show us our characters’ reactions to the crisis of leadership at government level, the opening of the border with Hungary, the role of the churches as a force for radical change. There’s a wonderful episode where Katharina and fellow art students are on a compulsory veg picking week in the country outside Berlin. They’re discussing the protests going on and, fed up with pulling rotting cauliflower out of the ground, they up and leave at night, trudging across the East German countryside while sharing fantasies about where they’ll go when the border opens.
Interestingly for me, not everyone is desperate to get over that border. Hans, Katharina, her parents and their milieu see the rush for the 100DM Westgeld and the Western consumer goods as vulgar and demeaning. It’s a good three weeks till Katharina goes over, and she describes her feelings of disorientation in those early days as if she, her present, has been sucked into the other world in a great almighty rush. And the novel is masterly in its account of the speed with which West Germany took over the East and imposed its values and systems: talk of co-operation soon turned to accession, plans for a new, joint constitution for East and West ditched in favour of the West’s constitution imposed on the East. Nowhere have I read such a powerful account of the humiliation this entailed as here, when the entire staff of the state radio and television broadcaster, including Hans, are dismissed. They have to wait in line, all 13,000 employees, to go into a room with a desk and a telephone, where they speak to an anonymous voice from Frankfurt, telling them whether or not they’ve been re-instated. Hans loses his job, and at the end of the novel is a broken man. His fruitless search for frozen cabbage on the supermarket shelves symbolises his groping after a society which no longer exists.
I loved the exploration of the waves and layers of history playing out, and playing out differently, over different generations in this novel. I particularly enjoyed the novel’s account of those East Berliners who did not welcome their country being subsumed so rapidly into the capitalist Western world. What I struggled with was the love affair. I was just not convinced that 19 year old Katharina would fall in love with a man older than her father – which may have led to my impatience with her sitting there listening to all those cassettes. Now, this may just be me. If you like Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels, don’t let this put you off. And if you’re loath to read any more books about die Wende, can I add that the Stasi are only mentioned by name once, right at the end. Now that’s worthy of an essay all by itself …
Reviewed by Mandy Wight
by Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Published by Granta (2023)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Mandy Wight has published several translations from German on the No-Mans-Land Website, including excerpts from novels by Ursula Krechel, Nina Jäckle, Ulrike Edschmid, Natascha Wodin and Monika Helfer. In 2018 she was awarded the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation for her translation of an extract from Juli Zeh’s novel Unterleuten. She writes on books in English and in translation at her blog Peakreads.