A baby girl dies in her cot in a small village in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Her mother is overwhelmed with grief, and her father tries to break free by setting sail for America where he finds himself adrift in a foreign land.
The story of the family is over – except maybe the child survives? What if her mother saves her? Perhaps her parents will stay together, have another daughter, and move to Vienna where they will fight against starvation in the First World War. Perhaps the child – now a headstrong adolescent – will fall in love, become estranged from her family and end her life in a suicide pact.
Or maybe the teenage girl will take a different route and never meet the young man with the fatal pistol? Then she will wake the next morning and her death will be postponed. Perhaps she will perish in a Stalinist purge in the Soviet Union where she has joined the Communist Party, or fall down a flight of stairs in East Berlin, or die in a care home in reunified Germany.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘The End of Days’ follows multiple pathways through a woman’s life, rewriting the endings until the baby girl who suffocated on the first page dies as a nonagenarian with grandchildren of her own. This reshuffling of the narrative is at once playful and serious. There are many possible endings to the woman’s story, but in each telling she has only one life and a death that she cannot escape. Meanwhile, history continues with her or without her: ‘A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days,’ the dead baby’s grandmother learns.
Spanning ninety years of the twentieth century, this slim book is many things: a study in personal tragedy, an oblique historical chronicle, an exploration of universal themes and a feat of storytelling.
About the Author
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. After training as a bookbinder, she read drama at Berlin’s Humboldt University and went on to study opera and directing at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music. She has since worked on opera and music productions in Graz and Berlin. Her previous books include ‘The Old Child’ and ‘Visitation’. Her most recent novel ‘Gehen, ging, gegangen’ will be published in English next year.
About the Translator
Susan Bernofsky lives in New York and works as a translator and university lecturer. Her translations include works by Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada, Hermann Hesse and poet Uljana Wolf. Together with Jenny Erpenbeck she was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for the English-language edition of The End of Days. She blogs about translation.
Bookshelf / Bücherregal
Counterfactuality is the theme of this month’s choices. Simon Urban’s ‘Plan D’ is a thriller set in East Germany of the 2010s where the Berlin Wall is still standing. His novel experiments with alternate histories, whereas Juli Zeh’s ‘Dark Matter’ explores alternative worlds, combining quantum physics with a detective story in which a child mysteriously disappears.
Tr. Katy Derbyshire
Harvill Secker, 2013
Detective Wegener works for the East German police in an alternate reality where reunification never happened. Assigned to investigate the death of a man in a forest, he uncovers clues that lead him to a terrorist resistance organization and to a political conspiracy aimed at reshaping the two German states according to a new vision for Deutschland: Plan D…
Tr. Christine Lo
Harvill Secker, 2010
A child is kidnapped, patients die in a hospital, and a man is killed. A metaphysical crime novel in which nothing is quite what it seems – or is it? The solution lies in a quarrel between two physicists about the nature of reality and the strength of a friendship.
Text: Sally-Ann Spencer
Copyright: Goethe-Institut New Zealand, 2016