It has been an age since I wrote a review here, a month at least. What better way to reintroduce the form than with the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck.
In my lowest moments of reading ambivalence, it has been wordy, intellectual books such as The Secret History or Parade’s End that have restored my love of reading. But, then there are books like The End of Days. So well-formed, yet etched in the style of a short story. Full of sparse text and nameless characters. I never realised this type of fiction could also pull me back to reading.
I have always been a characters-over-plot reader and generally avoided a definition free form. However, what Erpenbeck and similar authors manage to achieve with this style is a connection with characters that negates the need to name them, or form judgments of these characters based on how we feel about this naming. It’s strange to encounter a story where we are denied the ability to identify the inhabitants, it’s strange what this does to the understanding of the story.
”We are born and we die – but many things could happen in between. Which life do we end up living?’ From one of the most daring voices in European fiction, this is a story of the twentieth century traced through the various possible lives of one woman. She is a baby who barely survives beyond her first breath, and suffocates in the cradle. Or perhaps not? She lives to become as an adult and dies beloved. Or dies betrayed. Or perhaps not? Her memory is honoured. Or she is forgotten by everyone. Moving from a small Galician town at the turn of the century, through pre-war Vienna and Stalin’s Moscow to present-day Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck homes in on the moments when life follows a particular branch and ‘fate’ suddenly emerges from the sly interplay between history, character and pure chance. Fully alive with ambition and ideas, The End of Days is a novel that pulls apart the threads of destiny and allows us to see the present and the past anew.’ GoodReads
Erpenbeck tells a History through her characters. This is the story of a Jewish girl marrying a ‘Goy’, of a child both born and unborn, of Spain and Austria and Germany and Russia, wars, of astounding poverty of people and a nation, antisemitism, communism, hiding, family, love and so much more.
It’s a European Life After Life but – no offense meant, Kate Atkinson – so much better. A merge of characters, time and events so wonderful I became unaware of the process. It’s not even until the end of the novel that the protagonist is given a name, and even then it is only a surname. Her identity is cloudy, and whether this be the intention or not, it feels as though this is a tool to make her representative of a group of people, rather than one person’s life. In each ‘Book’ of life within the novel, she is surrounded by people differing from the ‘Book’ before. Even when these people are her own family. The transition is a fluid one, passing from one to the next.
‘Did that mean that death was not a moment but a front, one that was as long as life?’
There are many unanswered questions at each stage of her life. However, allowing the story to remain unanswered, or open to interpretation, is what adds to the reality of the story. Rarely, if ever, are all of life’s questions answered. People have secrets, and often secrets die with their owners.
I finished The End of Days wishing there was more. More words, more history, more of the family to follow. I also felt a significant sense of loss, for the experience of reading, and when I realised how much these characters had lost without knowing. Which was in itself heartbreaking.
The End of Days was beautifully translated by Susan Bernofsky, who should also be given credit for this wonderful story.