Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 280 pages; 2014. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Every November bloggers Caroline and Lizzy host German Literature Month, which is a good excuse to dig out those German language books languishing in my TBR. This year, however, I decided to treat myself to a new novel, which is how I came to buy Jenny Erpenbeck’s award-winning and critically acclaimed The End of Days at Waterstone’s late last month.
One woman’s life
The novel, which is broken up into five parts, tells the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave. But it does not follow the normal narrative conventions, for at the end of each part cruel fate steps in and the protagonist dies.
But then the author plays with the idea of “what if?” and the next section of the book explores what might have happened if the (unnamed) woman had continued to live.
All this is played out against the backdrop of Europe’s turbulent 20th century history, including anti-Semitism, the rise of the Third Reich, and Communism.
It’s a neat way to explore how chance and choice and the little decisions we make every day can have a big impact on our lives, and begs the question, is that what happens with world history, too?
An uneven narrative
Admittedly, reading this book was an uneven experience for me. The first two parts were some of the most compelling — and moving — literary fiction I’ve ever read. Who could not be intrigued by the idea of a baby dying in her cradle, aged just eight months, and then seeing the outfall on her parents — a Gentile father, who flees to America to escape the pain of his loss, and a Jewish mother, who falls apart emotionally and accidentally falls into prostitution to support herself?
The second part, which explores what would happen if the baby had survived (because the parents had rubbed a handful of snow on her chest to bring her back from the brink of death), follows the now 17-year-old girl being uprooted from her home in Eastern Europe and settling in Vienna, where it is hoped she will lead a better life. But it’s 1919 and food, fuel wood — and hope — is in short supply. There is increasing, yet unspoken, pressure on her to sell herself in order to sustain her family, but instead she enters into a suicide pact with a fellow student.
The third part charts a new variation of the young woman’s life had that pact failed, but this is where my interest in the novel began to wane. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d got used to the “trick” of the story, or whether it was because the prose style suddenly became dry and detached, a mirror perhaps of the period of Communist history in which it was set.
I won’t elaborate on the final two parts of the story, but I found the narrative recaptured my attention once again, and I was left feeling slightly shattered by the time I’d reached the final page.
Power, passion and philosophy
The End of Days is a relatively short novel, but it’s a powerful, passionate and philosophical one. The prose is rich and evocative, and the story so filled with ideas, concepts and political, socio-economic and cultural themes that it would take an age to unpack them all. But, in my opinion, the narrative power, so strong in the first 115 pages, isn’t sustained, weakening the overall effect.
Not that my opinion really matters: this book was described as a “work of genius” when it won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year.