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 the Third Reich and the Soviet empire disguised as the baker, the postman, the doctor, adoring grandparents. Such a child might develop the power to see through smiles and the walls of houses and the thick mists of time. Of Erpenbeck’s work available in English, The End of Days is her most direct address to history, and to my mind, it has the greatest drive and tensile strength. Menace seems to reside in the very substance of the pages.
As its premise keeps changing, the elaborate plot is difficult to summarize, even crudely—but let us say that, as Erpenbeck writes, toward the end of the nineteenth century, near the eastern border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a Jewish woman, a shopkeeper, has a daughter. Where is her father, the child wonders as she grows up. The mother gives an unconvincingly vague account—he left, she says; he’s in France, or America.
When the daughter is sixteen, a young gentile civil servant, made helpless by the girl’s beauty, asks the shopkeeper’s permission to marry her despite the fact that her Jewish parentage is bound to have serious consequences for him, and the shopkeeper agrees to the marriage. The girl’s grandfather sits shiva rather than come to the wedding, and the young man’s father will have nothing more to do with him.
Life is difficult in this little town at the edge of the known world, but the couple is very much in love until, in 1902, their first child, a daughter, dies suddenly in infancy, after which the civil servant, in despair, finds his way onto a ship headed for Ellis Island.
Stripping her dead granddaughter’s cradle, the shopkeeper reflects on how her husband was killed at the hands of an angry mob when their own daughter was still an infant:
She and her husband hadn’t managed to get the downstairs shutters closed before the first stones struck the house. Her husband had tried to see who was throwing the stones and had recognized Andrei. Andrei, he’d shouted out the window, Andrei! But Andrei didn’t hear him—or pretended not to, which was more likely, since he knew perfectly well who lived in the house he was throwing stones at. Then one of Andrei’s stones came hurtling through a window pane, passing just a hair’s breadth from her head, and crashed into the glass-fronted bookcase behind her, striking Volume 9 of the leather-bound edition of Goethe’s Collected Works that her husband’s parents had given him as a gift when he finished school. No breath of air disturbs the place,/Deathly silence far and wide./O’er the ghastly deeps no single/Wavelet ripples on the tide.
Hereupon her husband, filled with rage, flung open the front door, apparently intending to seize Andrei by the collar and bring him to his senses, but when he saw Andrei running toward the house with three or four other young men, one of them brandishing an axe, he slammed it shut again at once. Quickly, he turned the key in the lock, and together with his wife tried to take up the boards that always stood ready beside the door, waiting for just such an emergency, taking them and trying to nail them over the door. But it was already too late for this—where were the nails, where the hammer?—for the door was already beginning to splinter beneath the blows of the axe. Andrei, Andrei. Then she and her husband ran up the stairs, banging on the door behind which the wet nurse sat with the baby, but she didn’t open the door: either because she didn’t understand who was asking to be let in, or because she was so frightened she was unwilling to open it. The woman and her husband then fled to the attic, up one last steep flight of stairs, while down below Andrei and his men were already bursting into the house.
All for the purpose of protecting her daughter, the shopkeeper had moved out of the ghetto; she never disclosed to her daughter the fact of her father’s grisly murder in a pogrom, and then one morning she pledged the girl to a gentile. But like so many efforts made with the intention of protecting someone or something or some national entity against the assaults of the future, the consequences of her decisions turn out to be disastrous:
That morning, for the sake of her daughter’s happiness, she had sold her daughter’s happiness. Sometimes the price one pays for something continues to grow after the fact, becoming too expensive only long after it has been paid.
So, many years after the murder of her father, the young woman’s baby and husband are torn from her in one stroke.
In the following section of the book we are asked to consider what might have happened if either the young woman or her husband had realized in time that the baby was dying. What might have happened if this half-Jewish baby had lived instead of dying in 1902 and her father had stayed with the family rather than fleeing to America? Then how might the lives of these people have proceeded?
Let us say that the family has a second daughter and moves to Vienna in order to improve their prospects. But it seems that wherever they are in the Habsburg Empire, the fact of having a Jewish wife will prevent the civil servant from receiving the promotions due him, and now the Great War is roaring in, devouring food and fuel and every form of comfort.
The older daughter—the child who was born in 1902—has, in this new imagining of the possibilities, lived to become a passionate, eloquent, and courageous teenager with flaming red hair and shining ideals. She and her friends are revolutionaries, and she keeps a diary, where she records her private thoughts. She hides her diary in a wardrobe and enjoins her little sister from reading it. But her fiery nature propels her into unrequited love for one of her friends, and in her anguish and humiliation she contrives her own death by persuading a man she hardly knows to shoot her.
With great delicacy and in a couple of brief, contiguous paragraphs, Erpenbeck presents first a memorial to the ruin of Europe at the close of World War I and then—with the implied murder of the redheaded daughter’s younger sister twenty-four years later—to the annihilation of six million and more individual universes:
The father doesn’t die until just over a year later, on December 2, 1920. His wife sells his clothes on the black market, but first she cuts off the gold-colored buttons with the eagle of the monarchy and puts them in a box. The father’s December salary, paid out to the widow as a final installment, is just enough for one midday meal. At least the daughter gets an extra portion of milk with cocoa each day at school, thanks to the Americans.
In 1944 in a small forest of birch trees, a notebook filled with handwritten diary entries will fall to the ground when a sentry uses the butt of his rifle to push a young woman forward, and she tries to protect herself with arms she had previously been using to clutch the notebook to her chest. The book will fall in the mud, and the woman will not be able to return to pick it up again. For a while the book will remain lying there, wind and rain will turn its pages, footsteps will pass over it, until all the secrets written there are the same color as the mud.
But suppose the omnipotent author makes, as she does, some tiny—seemingly trivial—adjustments in her account of the redhead’s fatal afternoon; what if, for instance, the author simply does not have the young woman turn onto the street where she will encounter her killer? In this way Erpenbeck once again retrieves her character from death and sends her back into the boiling cauldron of Europe.
So let us now say the entrancing promise of justice and equality then beguiles the young woman to Russia as, at that time, it did so many intellectually inclined Jews from her region of the world. What might become of her then?
In Russia the young woman establishes herself as a writer, and Erpenbeck posits two extremes of experience for her to inhabit and live out to their fated conclusions. One of the most dazzling sections of the book takes place during 1937–1938, in which Erpenbeck portrays with explosive compression the self-delusion, treachery, fragmented consciousness, and debasement that ensue when the vision of a stainless new order of justice slams into Stalin’s Terror. Here—suggesting a session of defensive self-criticism, or a memory from prison, or testimony at an interrogation, or the phantom of a trial called up by fear—is a chorus of voices raised, apparently, in self-exculpation:
They were all in a good mood, they were singing and drinking coffee.
When I was there, all they were doing was dancing. I can’t dance, it was a dull two hours for me.
We showed up and played cards. We didn’t have any particular conversations.
They were already having coffee. There was no discussion of politics at all.
V. sometimes turned up at my apartment, which I took to mean that he liked to smoke and drink for free. I saw no political motivation for his behavior.
And so V. was in my room on several occasions, mainly we talked about bygone days. In early November 1935 I had one last brief encounter with him on the street.
After the fall of 1931 I never saw him again. We weren’t at all close, neither personally nor politically.
Once he came and sat with me as I was drinking a glass of beer. He made a very bad impression on me, and I never saw him again.
He can’t hold his drink at all. Usually the first glass is already enough for him.
Sometimes he’s just pretending!
That’s right. I’ve seen that.
Did Comrade Br. ever run into Comrade T. at V.’s flat?
Not that I recall, but it’s always possible. I’d rather err on the side of assuming he did.
Why do you consider this a possibility?
According to what I’ve heard, the two of them knew each other.
S., L., M., and O. were once there, too. A female journalist from Sweden, then K., Sch. Once H. with his wife, and besides them, Comrade R., and Ö with his wife—I think that’s all of them.
I was there once, too.
Oh, right, Fr. and also C.
Pretty much everyone was tipsy.
I consider it my duty to emphatically put a stop to these evenings, no matter how festive. When alcohol is being consumed, it is impossible to monitor whether a political remark is being made that can no longer be monitored.
I was at his apartment once on New Year’s Eve when the entire house was full and there were also a large number of comrades in attendance.
Was I there?
Was I there?
Once I went to his apartment because he had invited me ten times.
I was off traveling all the time, so I didn’t have any sort of relationship with V. at all.
That V. managed to escape being unmasked by us as two-faced until the very end is of course quite disconcerting. The moral I draw from this is that his behavior was not entirely correct.
The book’s epigraph is a quotation from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz—a moment when a Viennese Jew realizes that she and her family have delayed fleeing Austria for too long and are now caught up in the Gestapo’s net: “We left from here for Marienbad only last summer. And now—where will we be going now?” The terrible question, whose answer is inarticulable and unthinkable—terminal—hangs over The End of Days, and throughout the book Erpenbeck mulls over matters of border: geographical, personal, political, and mortal.
As the border between East and West dissolves, we see the passionate, redheaded, radical woman, whom the author has brought repeatedly back over the one-way crossing between life and death, suffering from dementia in her Berlin nursing home, and we meet her son. He has spent his life in the Eastern Bloc, but he’s now visiting Vienna, where his mother came from:
Like it or not, when he looks at the people here, he sees they are used to driving fast cars, that they know what a tax return is, and have no cause to hesitate before ordering a glass of prosecco with their breakfast. Just the way they let the door slam behind them when they walk in shows him how sure they are of being in the right world everywhere in the world. Now he too is sitting in this right world, he even has the right money in his wallet, although he’s drinking water to conserve his “West money.” No dogs allowed. The signs with the images of the dogs prohibited from entering butcher shops, restaurants and swimming pools existed in East Germany as well, and probably they existed everywhere in the world.
The border that used to separate him from the West has long since fallen—but now it seems to have slipped inside him, separating the person he used to be from the one he’s supposed to be now, or allowed to be. I don’t know how you recognize a human being, his mother said to him last time he visited. He doesn’t want prosecco with his breakfast, like it or not. And he couldn’t care less if the others can tell by his way of looking around, by his hair and cheeks, that he comes from the land that has finally, rightly so, thank God, high time now, been wiped off the face of the earth, the land of—what madness—publicly owned enterprises, red carnations for your lapel on May 1, rigged elections, old men wearing berets left over from the Spanish Civil War, and dialectics taught at school.
A Man—how proud that sounds. Getting off the night train at six in the morning, he saw people sleeping on pieces of cardboard in the station. In what world had he spent the last forty years? What happened to that world? Will he have the heart of a dog now for the rest of his life?
Although geographical and historical designations are specific and detailed in the book, the author generally dispenses with the expedients not only of quotation marks but of personal names as well. It’s not until history loosens its grip on the protagonist and the Soviet Union dissolves just as her sense of her own identity does that the author grants her a name.
Voices and thoughts, motifs, snatches of song, the occasional shock of a Yiddish phrase, and so on float through the stream of cool narration, settling into intricate patterns. But owing to the skill of both author and translator we always know where we are, who’s thinking or speaking, what path a diary or a set of volumes of Goethe or the buttons of a civil servant’s uniform have followed to end up where we find them. Still, you have to be awake when you read this book.
But you wouldn’t want to read it as you’re falling asleep anyhow. In fact you might want to read it when you’re fully dressed, with a small bag at your side—of the sort that we New Yorkers are now instructed to keep at the ready in the event of a hurricane, a terrorist attack, a nuclear power plant malfunction, whatever—that includes a few energy bars, a liter of potable water, a flashlight, a passport, and, who knows, a big bottle of sedatives.
Twentieth-century Europe provided us with the illustrative range of brutality that is reenacted here: the intimate savagery of the pogroms, the wholesale destruction of world war, the Third Reich’s systematic and disciplined genocide, and Stalin’s implacable murders of a still-disputed number generally estimated at 20 or 30 million. But “history” isn’t relegated by Erpenbeck to a setting for a story, nor is a story affixed, artificially, to a historical setting. The characters and background, fused, convey a continuing ferment of human irrationality.
Humans are easily persuaded that it’s necessary to kill, and they rush to the job with alacrity. Since the moment we were thrown out of that garden we’ve been killing one another out of sheer greed and covetousness. And it’s mortifying to think of ourselves as a particularly unpleasant animal whose nature causes it to seize from others what it can.
But many murderous convulsions all over the world are directed at populations that—as the Jews were in Europe—are cast in the public mind as enemies, and they are justified on that basis. One of the aspects of the Nazi Holocaust that makes it particularly horrifying to us is the grotesque clarity of its inversion of rationality and irrationality—the thin, decorous veneer of punctilious procedure and timetables and excellent records and smart uniforms, and so on, laid over a continent that had turned into an abattoir.
If we are not the rational beings we’d been telling ourselves we are, then what in the world are we? Sure, it’s mortifying to confront humanity’s rapacity, but maybe it’s even more shaming and terrifying to contemplate the ease with which so many of us can persuade ourselves that it’s rational to expunge some part of the population, the part considered “the others” or “the enemies.” In other words, to contemplate the possibility that our species is fundamentally insane.
But ask the victim of any murder what motive she would prefer her murderer to have, or to be credited with. Here Erpenbeck offers an array for us to mourn equally.
No matter how far we run, it’s impossible to get away from Adorno’s famous 1949 sentence—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”—which is so frequently torn from its recondite context and twisted up into a cudgel with which to intimidate us. Never mind that the work from which it comes is a sustained and complex discourse concerning the commodification of culture; it sounds like something God might have said, and although many have decried or dismissed it, we can’t seem to drop it—probably because it seems to express in a highly compressed way things that we ourselves are bound to feel—for example, that reality is in some way holy and that an attempt to reproduce or represent a great crime against humanity is a trespass; that no human has empathy sufficient to comprehend or humility sufficient to honor the suffering of another, let alone to try to reproduce it on a plain old piece of paper.
Who, if anyone, gets to do that? Anyone who owns a pencil can write about anything, and the more lurid the subject matter and the more inflated the treatment, the wider the readership is likely to be and the cheaper, more self-serving, and more meaningless the reader’s response. Obviously the difficulties fade away, or seem to, the longer ago the horrors took place; a facile or trivial novel about the Punic Wars would probably seem less repellent than a facile or trivial novel about the Holocaust, although in a way that’s our problem in a nutshell.
If fiction and poetry are too small a means to examine or mourn the enormities of human history, what is not? How are we to remember, let alone comprehend, our behavior? Although they are composed of the same abstract elements—words—we tend not to be uneasy about nonfiction the way we are about fiction; we know we need information, and facts (what we loosely mean by “facts”) are considered to have an inviolate purity, whereas fiction by its nature is slippery and equivocal. But bookshelves abound with false, vapid, windy, meretricious, boastful, and clichéd works of nonfiction as well as of fiction, and one so frequently encounters histories or factual accounts or biographies that convey almost nothing that corresponds to actual experience.
And it is experience that fiction, for the most part, aims to convey. The very slipperiness of fiction, its equivocal nature, is what it has to offer. It is designed to weasel into tight corners, to take an imprint of the strange and subtle mental acts that are so difficult to record. Even in broad daylight when we can see clearly, we take in consciously only a fragment of what is in front of us. Our minds cast a soft veil over reality to disperse its glare, and it’s only when sleep tears the veil away that we plunge into the depths of our terror and grief and love and desires.
It’s the job of fiction writers, in my opinion, to swim around in dreams and nightmares and fish up what they find. Literature might be a dubious medium and not fully adequate to the immeasurable job of letting us know what’s out in the world and what’s deep in our psyches—letting us know how to “recognize a human being”—but as yet we haven’t come up with anything better, and I, personally, am very grateful to writers who, like Erpenbeck, are willing and equipped to take up the challenge.