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There are several ways to describe The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky. The selected quotations from big-name newspapers on the cover rave and croon over its brilliance, its power and poetry. The translation is beautiful, making it easy to assume that this praise could apply to the original German as well as to the translation. It is, and I quote from the back cover: ‘a dazzling story of the last century told through the various lives of one woman: an intoxicating masterpiece that pulls apart the threads of destiny and allows us to see the present and the past anew.’ It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2015, the first German novel to do so since 2002.
The idea behind the plot is one life, retold again and again, with different facts altered so that the baby doesn’t die, or the family go to Vienna, or the girl survives the interwar years of starvation, or the woman doesn’t get caught by the Germans in 1941, or she does in fact receive her new Soviet passport before her file is passed to the NKVD, or she doesn’t fall downstairs, to her final destiny in a German old people’s home, worried about by a devoted son. These are multiple lives during a very grim time and place, as if all the horrors of war were experienced in one echoing lifeline. There is a repeated fear of the family’s Jewish line of descent being exposed, after the nineteenth-century grandfather’s murder by his Polish neighbours. There is no Holocaust episode, perhaps because starving and persecution in the German republic after the First World War is quite bad enough.
This conceit has been worked out lots of times before, and some of the more recent variants in English literature, by Kate Atkinson and David Mitchell, have been acclaimed and sold well. I doubt they are as unrelentingly grim as this novel. Reading it is to be hypnotised by mesmeric repetitions of small daily sufferings and alternate lives without joy, pleasure, colour or sound. None of the characters are given names until quite near the end, so we are looking through a mass of stories about ‘the daughter’, ‘the mother’, ‘the grandmother’, never quite sure which generation we are being told about. It’s a desperately unsatisfying form of confusion, and I didn’t like it. The intention may have been to numb individual preferences for this or that variant of the woman’s story into exhausted indifference, to accept that basically we all die, and what goes on beforehand is unimportant. I don’t know why I would want to read a novel telling me that.
In the Soviet-era section, there is a beautifully told series of denunciations and chains of decisions involving Comrades A, B, C, K, all the way to Shu, where lives and deaths are thrown away in the need to match set quotas of arrests and executions for the month. It is a piercing illustration of the hideous Stalinist system of mutual distrust and betrayal, and this, I think, is the reason why the book should be read, if you can get past my complaints. The End of Days is a poetic description of the faceless persecution of the nameless, and totalitarian administration that doesn’t seem to change, from one century (under Emperor Franz-Joseph) to the next (under Joseph Stalin). Different systems are set up in different times to move the bodies, shuffling them into their graves, depending on which storyline we are reading. There is no way I want to read this novel again, but that is not to say that it’s bad. It’s very successful at showing some twentieth-century horrors that perhaps we don’t read enough about in the cocoon of Anglophone literature. I don’t agree with the Guardian that it’s ‘exhilarating’ (I forced myself to finish reading it for this review, and it was not an exhilarating process), but it is (Daily Telegraph) ‘concise’. Thank goodness.
Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (translated by Susan Bernofsky), first published in 2012 in German as Aller Tage Abend (London: Portobello Books, 2014), ISBN 978-1-84627-515-9, £8.99