A Wonderful Novel and an Impossible Challenge

The End of Days

by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 239 pp., $22.95
Dominique Nabokov
Jenny Erpenbeck, Berlin, 2014

Jenny Erpenbeck’s wonderful The End of Days opens with the death of an infant in 1902 near the eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ends with the death, nine decades later, of a woman in an old people’s home in Berlin, but the book, bracketed as it is by death, is so alive that one closes it gently.

The eschatological title’s overtones of cataclysm and cultural degradation set us off at a run through twentieth-century Europe, and Erpenbeck employs its further suggestion of resurrection as well: the child who dies at the beginning of the book and the old woman who dies at its end are one and the same person, whom the author leads to one mortal impasse and then another. Each time she dies, the author brings her back, to be harried along again between the high walls of her historical circumstances until her final incarnation is allowed to die of old age.

By current reckoning, at under 250 pages The End of Days is a fairly short novel, especially considering that its scope is a century and a continent, but Erpenbeck dispenses with the heaps of clutter with which many fiction writers simulate weight and distills the horrors of the times into an intoxicating, bitter essence. The book’s formal ingenuity is elegant and exhilarating, ferocious as well as virtuosic. One experiences the author’s urgent drive to pin down and scrutinize, using any means possible, the elusive, shape-shifting enigmas of human experience, including the appetite that members of our species have for destroying one another.

Although the four volumes of Erpenbeck’s fiction available to us—all rendered from the original German into supple and gorgeous English by Susan Bernofsky—are very different from one another, they share an inventiveness that is purposeful rather than decorative, an astringent grace, potent atmospheres and imagery, a seething compound of violence, loveliness, absurdity, grief, cold outrage, and compassion, as well as that very welcome economy.

Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967—a circumstance that would likely permit no escape from a confrontation with recent and extreme deformations of humanity. The GDR didn’t quite dare make Austria’s preposterous claim to victimhood, but it did disavow the stain of German fascism by ascribing to itself, courtesy of its Soviet affiliation, an antifascist past. So much the worse for everyone; while the East Germans suffered under Soviet domination and its particular debasements, much Nazi memorabilia was stowed carefully away in attics, to be cherished nostalgically in secret. And as the world now knows very well, residents of the GDR—unlike contemporary Americans, who, thanks to Google and our iPhones, spy on ourselves efficiently and cheerfully for the NSA while shopping, working, and flirting—had to drudge away for the Stasi, spying on one another.

A child born in 1967 in the GDR will have been surrounded by specters from both…

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