The End of Days

Jen­ny Erpen­beck; Susan Bernof­sky, trans.
  • Review
By – February 1, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions