Friday, June 14, 2024

Jenny Erpenbeck


It was not until recently that I became acquainted with the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of this year's International Booker Prize. But these prizes, of course, drive attention. And this in case, for good reason: Erpenbeck's Kairos is a moving, dire, complete novel. 

Part of what I most admired about the book is its symmetry: this is a love story that emerges under the shadow of two distinct German nations and which, perhaps not surprisingly, unravels as those nations become one. And more, it's a story about generations: about a young woman and an older man, and their attempts to bridge the history between them: the Second World War and the transition -- nearly immediate -- to a divided Germany. 

Kairos, the god of "fortunate moments," is just that: the serendipity of social interaction: the random quality of love. For the first part of the novel, Kairos is everywhere: a love born of a fortunate moment becomes a web of fortunate moments, each more poignant and charged than the next. But then, these moments become something else: they represent the weight of time, of promises broken and partnership betrayed. There's considerable pain, loathing, and abuse in the second part of the novel: it's the unraveling of something fueled by passion but also by discretion, infidelity, and secrecy. The emotional pain uncovered by Erpenbeck is pointed, indeed. 

And then, cast over it all, is the geopolitical maelstrom that was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the eventual unification of the German states. This tectonic moment would test any relationship. But its significance tests this one -- between Katharina and Hans -- more than most because, in East Germany, collaboration was rampant. The result is that no one was truly who they were supposed to be, or who they were understood to be. And thus, when the state collapsed, so did its many unassuming agents, its small army of men and women as brittle, in the end, as the political body they served. Lovers were lovers, but they played many other roles, too. That division is what separates the novel in half. 

This is a sharp, multi-layered, seductive novel: one of history, of love, and longing. I highly recommend Kairos as an entry into the work of Erpenbeck. 

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