Jenny Erpenbeck’s last novel, Visitation, curated a number of stories around a particular setting. In her latest, The End of Days, she displays the same dissatisfaction with the single story, but this time the nucleus is character. If this sounds more traditional – after all, don’t most novels tell a number of stories connected to one character? – it isn’t: each of Erpenbeck’s tales ends in death, only for her character to resurrected by the power of fiction and continue along a different path. (I haven’t read it, but the premise of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life sounds similar, though the titles themselves suggest a difference of tone).
Erpenbeck’s novels often explore human cruelty and The End of Days is particularly concerned with the treatment of Jews – not only in Germany (Erpenbeck is German) but throughout Eastern Europe. A key scene which reverberates throughout the novel is the death of the central character’s grandfather in Poland after a mob breaks into his house. Though his wife escapes to the roof, he is murdered before he can make it through the gap they have created. It is difficult to decide what is most horrific: her husband’s violent death or the peaceful scene that greets her when she looks down from the roof.
“First she is holding her husband by the hand, and then all she is holding is a clump of flesh, for there is no longer anything alive left she might pull up to where she crouches in then open air. Then she is a Jewish widow holding Death by the hand. She lets go, gets up, and looks down beneath her and the open landscape.”
The contrast between this vicious blood-frenzy and the everyday is typical of Erpenbeck’s writing, as is the perfect, almost poetic phrasing – aided, once again, by the expert translation of Susan Bernofsky. The widow moves away with her daughter – the first of a number of moves in the vain hope of finding a safe haven. In some versions of the stories which follow the daughter never discovers the reason for her father’s absence. The daughter marries, and the novel opens with her own daughter dying:
“The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than there had been to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.”
It is this potential life, or lives, which Erpenbeck goes onto unfold, after first demonstrating the consequences that the baby’s death has for the mother and father. This first Book is followed by an Intermezzo which begins, “But if, for example…” and goes on to describe the effect of the child’s survival, including the relocation of the family to Vienna. We then re-join them in Book II shortly after the end of the First World War. The pattern is now set: each of the five Books will end with her death at different stages of her life; the Intermezzo which follows will suggest a route to survival, and we will begin again.
There is nothing life-affirming in this journey, however. We are taken beyond the effects of the First World War, through the Second World War, and east to Russia. The girl’s birth in 1902 means that her life is that of the 20th century. When she survives as teenager she becomes radicalised and joins the Communist party, leaving for Moscow as result of the rise of Nazism. In her final life she lives long enough to see the reunification of Germany. Throughout Erpenbeck demonstrates that, though she may be able to conjure survival with her pen, survival in the world itself is difficult – and not dying is the least of it, particularly for women. Avenues of survival are few, and often rely on men – prostitution features more than once. While Erpenbeck uses the novel’s structure to show the role fate plays in death, it is the characters’ lives which feel fated, and often outwith their control:
“How long does a life last anyhow?
Seventy or eighty years?
Doesn’t she already know more than she can bear?”
Throughout the family carry with them a complete set of Goethe – representing the civilisation they never find – until eventually it, too, has to be sold. When the protagonist’s son unknowingly encounters it in an antique shop – along with other jetsam from his mother’s life – he contemplates buying it, but decides:
“…who knows whether he’d still have time to read an edition of collected works, he isn’t getting any younger.”
Time may seem to be the enemy, but Erpenbeck’s novel suggests that we might live many lives unfulfilled.