The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck review – ‘only the inevitable is possible’
Reading Jenny Erpenbeck is like falling under hypnosis: your breathing changes, you see moments in time simultaneously, yet you can’t recall names, dates or the order of events. The most memorable character in her novelVisitationhas no words to say and is known simply as the Gardener. Ideologies, armies and seasons come and go, but the Gardener plants and replants throughout the 20th century. Through the story of one house and garden, Erpenbeck reveals the metamorphic strata of human experience. A masterpiece of subversion and subtlety,Visitationis an intimate history of modern Germany. Her earlier novellaThe Old Childis a parable of oppression told through a girl’s life. Now comesThe End of Days , her most philosophically and technically ambitious work yet.
A short, musical novel that contains several books and intermezzos, it opens at the beginning of the 20th century in the Austro-Hungarian provinces. We are at a baby’s grave, and flash-forward to what might have been had she not suffocated in her cot. The mother later laments that perhaps “their child … needed only a short while to complete something begun in an earlier life”. In Erpenbeck’s lucid prose, superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky, the first book traces the unfolding lives of the parents after the baby’s death. The father flees to America, where immigrants displaying “madness, melancholia, anarchism” are sent back home, and his abandoned wife is forced into coexistence with her bitter mother, and into prostitution (“I am not a whore” becomes a recurrent cry of protest for all the subsequent female characters). Oppressed by her Jewish grandparents’ religiousness, she thinks “How much better it would be … if the world were ruled by chance not a God” – an authorial nudge, since that’s precisely what Erpenbeck offers: a world ruled by chance so ruthless it might be mistaken for a God.
The second book is a glimpse into what might have been, had the baby survived into the fraught 20th century. Harsh circumstances – wartime famine in Vienna, mass despair, the rise of antisemitism, a first heartbreak – combine with just the right personality flaw to result in our adolescent heroine killing herself. Or do they? Because in the next book, the girl walks down a different Vienna street and ends up with a different life in which her father, now a civil servant who can’t feed his family, dies “of the war” and her mother becomes the bitter woman she seems destined to be in every version. With the parental cry “Don’t go falling down the stairs” echoing down all the
chilly roads the girl travels, each new life is succeeded by another; even when she outlives the Berlin Wall to lose her mind in an old people’s home, “some death or other will eventually be her death”.
Existential speculation is not new in fiction, but Erpenbeck’s prose feels newly exhilarating, especially in the first half of the novel. So what if every version of our life is a slow veering off course towards the “entrance into the underworld”, the inevitable fall downstairs. A single life is never single, and in that alone we may take consolation – maybe. But as our heroine falls down to the bottom of one particular set of stairs, aged 60, panicking one last time that “so much remains to be done before everything is as it should be”, she is wrong, Erpenbeck suggests. Nothing remains to be done, and the spiritual question at the heart ofThe End of Daysis profound: why is it that a long life doesn’t necessarily complete what was “begun in an earlier life” any more than death in the cradle?
In contrast to the novel’s magical structure, this forensic vision is the opposite of magical thinking, where anything is possible. In Erpenbeck’s world, only the inevitable is possible and the tree of destiny has endless dead-end branches. The baby is unavoidably subjected to collective destiny – almost in accordance with the Soviet doctrine to “never overvalue the private fate of the individual”, a law our heroine survives during the Uzbek version of her life, but not in the Moscow version, where she is arrested and shot in accordance with the time (Stalin’s purges) and the place.
Except knowing that this is not the only version of her life offers no actual consolation. Erpenbeck’s Chekhovian talent for letting us into the shifting consciousness of her characters’ various incarnations is such that with each death our loss feels definitive. But while in Chekhov there are no exits from personality, here there are no exits from history. AlthoughVisitationwas both more grounded in place and more viscerally affecting thanThe End of Days , which at times feels over-constructed and rootless, reading Erpenbeck always produces a shiver of metaphysical vertigo. Her wisdom feels uncannily ancient and, like the earlier work,The End of Daysis shot through with an insight that almost blinds.
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