Slipped Boundaries, Infinite Lives: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

Vanessa Blakeslee

Translated by Susan Bernofsky. New York, NY: New Directions Press, 2014. 239 pages. $23.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

One needs courage to emerge from a Jenny Erpenbeck novel merely stirred to deeper contemplation and not to paranoia about the mysteries of metaphysics, and how haphazardly we human beings meet our fates. The End of Days is the sixth book of fiction by the German writer, the fourth to be translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, and subsequent recipient of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Other accolades include the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize. The much-heralded novel reads as a natural successor to its predecessor, Visitation (New Directions, 2010), while remaining wholly distinct in subject, structure, and theme. In a mere 151 pages, Visitation offers the interconnected stories of twelve individuals who at different points in time occupy a certain cottage on a Brandenburg lake. The novel explores the concept of Heimat—a singularly German term that describes a person’s relationship to a specific social space. In The End of Days, Erpenbeck’s fictional meditation might not be so narrowly confined, but her title encapsulates the plane of its near-constant interrogation:

But what to do with all the things that resisted calculation? How much time was there really between the second when a child was alive and the next, when it was no longer alive? Was it even time separating one such moment from another? Or did it have to be given a different name, except that no one had found the right name for it yet? How could you calculate the force dragging a child over to the realm of the dead?

If concision is a trademark of Erpenbeck’s prose (The End of Days is a lean 239 pages), then so is her questioning—a technique that peels back layers of reality to expose the axis where the soul and the scientific intersect. In this probing portrait of various possibilities for one woman’s life, death is a minefield we sidestep every day, the passages between this world and the next eerily close. Yet the novel questions the living, too, examining what keeps a person in her role as a wife, shopkeeper, or revolutionary, versus up and leaving, starting anew somewhere; the individual’s decisions often remain an enigma. So is what stubbornly persists from life to life—a clock, a notebook, a letter, a collection by Goethe—in contrast to what changes at whim, such as beliefs. How we manage such mysteries within the subjectivity of our inextricably interwoven lives is a central preoccupation of the novel.

The End of Days is composed of five shorter “books” of roughly fifty pages each, separated by brief “intermezzos” in which the omniscient narrator interjects to show how actions taken or not taken lead to the same protagonist meeting a different end, and how the personal coincides with the political and historical. In the first version of the protagonist’s life, for example, in which she dies as an infant, her bereaved mother prostitutes herself in secret, and eventually runs away; her father leaves for a new life in America. David Mitchell’s fiction comes to mind, and Days is similar in structure to the British writer’s polyphonic novel Cloud Atlas. Like Mitchell, Erpenbeck challenges the traditional novel by inventing forms that not only drive the content, but unify the themes. Days challenges definition and is as speculative as it is literary; it’s fitting that one of its main preoccupations is the mutability of borders. As the novel progresses into the third “book,” its Viennese protagonist comes into her own as a writer, crafting her life story in a desperate appeal to be permitted to stay in the Soviet Union after her husband’s arrest.

But what are the right words? Would a truth take her farther than a lie? And which of the many possible truths or lies should she use? When she doesn’t even know who will be reading what she writes?

Here the novel becomes delightfully aware of itself, calling attention to itself as a literary work as it hurdles further into the nature of truth and reality.

Erpenbeck’s speculative use of narrative depicts how altering the slightest of actions—turning right at a street corner instead of left—results in drastically different fates. At the same time, she unearths what’s hidden in the lives we lead, where and how boundaries are defined, and how, in an instant, the roles we inhabit can change: “Now her daughter has taken her place as the abandoned wife, while she herself has become what in truth she always was, if only in secret: a widow.” By the third book, Erpenbeck’s protagonist, a writer, exerts greater agency within her fate as she navigates the invisible boundary of the Iron Curtain, her worldview irrevocably grey: “Could it be a mistake to have Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks right there on her shelf? Has Lenin been outlawed yet? Could he have been a classic author when she set out to get her tea, but already a criminal by the time she returns with her cup?” As the protagonist finds her voice in the written word, the personal becomes more political; the more lines blur, so do the stakes increase.

In the next two “books,” one in which the protagonist has lived into her prime and become an esteemed writer in East Germany, and the last, in which she dies at ninety in a post–Cold War Vienna, Erpenbeck further expounds upon the paradoxes of shifting boundaries by examining how the dismantling of East and West Germany has disrupted her characters’ lives. The protagonist’s son thinks, “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.” In his essay on King Lear, “The Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats explores the notion of “shadow lives”: “Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world.” There is a twofold “emotion of multitude” at work in Days, the first driven by the presumably infinite number of lives the protagonist and her family members might live beyond the page. The second lies in the way, through that focus on her protagonist’s possible lives, Erpenbeck shines a new light on human history.

Consider the haunting intersection in space-time that occurs near the close of the Soviet section. Erpenbeck’s prose has been described as “dreamy,” and no more so than here; credit must be given to the award-winning Susan Bernofsky, who has translated a wide range of German literature, including Kafka, Robert Walser, Herman Hesse, and Yoko Tawada. The protagonist’s appeal has failed due to a series of bureaucratic decisions based on little more than whims; she is living out her end of days in a Soviet work camp.

On one particular day during the summer of ’41, she drove her pickaxe into the earth at a specific point and began to dig her own grave, without knowing, of course, that this was the exact place on all this infinite earth destined to become her dwelling for the eternal winter. The coordinates 45.61404 degrees latitude north and 70.75195 degrees longitude east would be what people would use to describe this otherwise nameless place, where on a summer’s day, at forty degrees Celsius, she would drive her pickaxe into the dry sand, making grass, tiny insects, and dust fly around, for the earth here was completely dry far down into its depths.

A word or phrase may not yet exist for what the narrator meditates upon here, a close cousin to Heimat, both concepts singular and nebulous. What Jenny Erpenbeck may evoke most poignantly with her prose is the emotion of infinity, and the stakes of our ever-shifting, precarious, and hopelessly interconnected lives.

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