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Leben nach dem Leben

A poignant German what-if novel about a life which can’t escape death

Simon Willis | January/February 2015

ENGLISH TITLE  The End of Days
AUTHOR  Jenny Erpenbeck 
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE  German
TRANSLATOR  Susan Bernofsky 


Like Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life”—published a year after this book came out in German—this is a story of what-ifs that begins with the death of a child. We’re in Galicia in about 1900. A mother stands over the grave of her infant, and as she throws dirt onto the body, she grieves for what the girl might have become—a piano-playing ten-year-old, or a pretty adolescent with copper hair. These might-have-beens give the novel its start, and in five sections, punctuated by what Erpenbeck calls “Intermezzi”, we see five phases of that imaginary life.

This being central Europe at the start of a century of ideological death-matches, the result is a dark affair. We follow the girl with her family to Vienna, a war-addled city of food-shortages and frigid housing. We follow her to Moscow and on to a Stalinist labour camp, where she digs graves—her own among them—before the ground freezes in winter. And after a career as a writer in communist East Germany, we see her as a confused old lady in a care home. The prevailing idea is of personal fate caught up with political fiat, of chance with terror, of a life that cannot escape death.

Erpenbeck’s skill is to seed the novel with images and objects—a diary, a letter, the sound of dripping tears—that echo like musical motifs. In spite of being broken into five parts, the life takes on a singular psychological texture. As it accrues, the grief that got us started weighs more and more. But there’s a personal back-story: the skeleton of the narrative came from her grandmother’s biography. As well as being moved by the fictional life that succumbed to the forces stacked against it, you’re intrigued by the real one that didn’t. ~ Simon Willis

Portobello out now

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