Monday, 1 January 2018

End of Days

Jenny Erpenbeck's 'The End of Days' was a random library find, picked up for the curious cover design, and kept for the description. It sounded a little like Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life', a story of the different path's someone's life might take, but it could not have been more different. The book follows the generations of a completely nameless family through the decades of the 20th century. The characters are referred to as the child, younger daughter, mother, father, wife, husband, old woman, grandmother, with various other departed family members referred to in relation to those currently living. You have to pay close attention to recall who is who, since the women are all mothers and daughters. At various points in the story the daughter considers her life and where it is going and what choices she might take and we see what might have befallen. 

Here, during the war, her price is whispered by a man in the shadows:

"The man's whisperings insinuated themselves beneath the broad brim of her hat, slipping into her ear from behind. Two pounds of butter, fifty decagrams of veal, ten candles. Although the entire world lies open before her, which she thought might put an end to her hearing, she can hear what the man is offering in exchange for her person. Is she interested? Or would she rather return home, where what she called her life is taking place: her father reading his files, her little sister doing her homework, her mother calling her, her older daughter, a whore. Salome is being performed tonight. How long has it been since her parents went out together? Does she know a good reason not to accept? Or is she not so sure? When she turns around, she sees a young man, perhaps only slightly older than she is; he has no hat on, even though it's the middle of winter, so she sees his thin hair, by the time he's twenty-five he'll have a bald spot, she thinks, and she's surprised to see beads of sweat on his forehead in the middle of winter.
Two pounds of butter, he repeats, looking at her, fifty decagrams of veal, ten candles.
He says her price right to her face.
And why not twelve candles, she says and starts to laugh." (p.93-4)

As the book progresses the young woman ends up in communist Russia, where characters are referred to as 'Comrade' and she struggles to negotiate the complexities of the communist party. Here this neat parody of the catch 22 situations that are created by the bureaucracy:

"Her passport, too, has been a German passport ever since the Anschluss. Her passport, too, expired three weeks ago. Three times now the Soviet official she handed her document to for inspection took one look at it and slammed his window down in her face. Without a valid passport there's no extending her residency permit, no propusk, but she needs one in order to be allowed to go on living in her apartment. At least the building superintendent is still letting her go upstairs to her apartment at night, when no one will see, but it won't be long before the apartment is assigned to someone else. And then where will she go?
While she is writing the account of her life, she listens for the sound of the elevator. The day the elevator stops on her floor at around four or five in the morning - that will be the end. During the day, she sits in the coffeehouse Krasni Mak, red poppy, translating poems from Russian to German, for her own edification. Without a propusk, there's no getting a work permit either. The money she has left from her husband will be enough, if she spends it frugally, for the next two weeks at most. Then what?
At night, instead of sleeping, she works on the account of her life, which she is using to apply for Soviet citizenship. but what if there is no right answer on this test? Will there eventually be only a single thing left to feel for sure: that each of the comrades dying, here or in Germany, has finally reached his goal, while each who has survived all of this, here or in Germany, purchased his life with treason." (p.146-7)

The constantly changing account that she writes of her life becomes something of a symbol of the revisionist history that happened during this period. The book becomes not just a story of the women (mainly the women) but also the story of Europe and the trauma it suffered. The author is East German and the book is certainly a very avant garde European novel; though I had not heard of her she is obviously well respected and her works have been widely translated. Something very different from much of my reading, it shows how occasionally browsing the shelves can come up with interesting gems.

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