What if your father had not been murdered in a vicious pogrom in Brody, Galicia, in 1902? If you had not succumbed to SIDS as an eight-month-old baby? What if you disentangled yourself from an ill-fated teenage love affair in starving post-World War I Vienna? If you managed to survive Stalin’s purges as a grown woman? And avoided a fatal slip and fall, and instead achieved literary stardom in the former East Germany when you were well into your sixties? Well, then you might have quietly died as an old woman in a nursing home in reunified Berlin, and your only son, grappling with his own complicated identity, would not have picked up his great-grandparents’ edition of Goethe on a chance visit to a used-book store.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s impressive novel — now masterfully translated by Susan Bernofsky — takes the reader through the stages of a life that might have been. In the process, Erpenbeck provides riveting insights into the major historical events that shaped the European twentieth century and affected individual lives, moving from a shtetl at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Vienna, to Moscow, to East Berlin. The story is told in five mesmerizing books, each of which could easily stand on its own; “intermezzi” build bridges between each of the heroine’s untimely deaths, suggesting ways in which she could have continued to live if, by chance, a minute but crucial detail had been different. Erpenbeck delivers a fascinating and touching observation of the arbitrariness of life and the fickleness of fate, putting personal experience into a larger historical and political context.
Erpenbeck writes against the act of forgetting, to preserve what it took those like her protagonist to create hope and imagine new possibilities against the recurring experience of random violence and loss, grief, abandonment, betrayal, and existential loneliness. “No one can quite imagine what that means any more,” her nameless (until the very end) everywoman says about her struggles. Erpenbeck works unflinchingly to ensure that we understand intimately the endurance it takes to keep getting up under the most difficult circumstances, to raise the next generation, and to continue moving toward the vision of a better future in times of war and persecution — both then and now, there and everywhere. Equally unflinchingly, Erpenbeck validates the unavoidable intergenerational transmission of traumatic emotional wounds.
Born in 1967 and raised in East Berlin, Erpenbeck, winner of several prestigious literary prizes, pays homage to her grandmother’s life while simultaneously creating a philosophical, nonlinear symphony about human existence. “A day on which a life comes to an end, is still far from being the end of days,” states the dead baby’s Jewish grandmother, whose husband had been murdered during a pogrom. Not an easy read — but an immensely rewarding one.
Reinhild Draeger-Muenke left her native Germany as a young adult and has lived in the United States for almost 40 years. She is a psychologist and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, helping people heal from intergenerationally transmitted trauma.