Maverick Life


Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck wins the International Booker prize – a chaotic love at the end of times

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck wins the International Booker prize – a chaotic love at the end of times
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck. Image: Booker Prize

A richly wrought tale of love found at the fag end of a republic wins the 2024 International Booker.

German writer Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Michael Hofmann have won the International Booker prize for the novel Kairos.

In relentless, unflinching present tense sentences, punched on to the page, it explores the extent to which human hearts might rise above history.

The book finds only fleeting and quickly crushed spaces for love to transcend all, however, as it plunges into the depths of interpersonal and social alienation and despair. It begins with a death. Katharina, in the present, learns of the long-expected (but no less shattering) demise of her one-time lover Hans. On receiving the news, she delves into an archive of records – letters, diaries, clippings – which memorialise their affair.

We then enter into the affair as it was lived. They fall in love in the last years of the German Democratic Republic (1945-1990). The socialist ideals of a better world that it was founded on had long since faded into a suffocating and doctrinaire bureaucratic conformism. All around them are signs of the end times, as capitalism rises, wraith-like, over the Berlin Wall. From the start, Katharina and Hans dwell beneath the shadow of the ending of the experiment in European communism. It is from this context that the title comes.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time. One was chronos: this was ordinary, normal time. It is characterised by boring, successive, monotone, undistinguished, seconds, minutes, hours, and days passing without much occurring. The other, kairos, was enchanted, the time when things happen, when things conclude, when history becomes substantial, even apocalyptic.

The late 1980s was kairos time for the German Democratic Republic and our protagonists.

Katharina was young, not yet out of her teens, when they met on a bus. She had dreams of working in the theatre. Hans was old, married – not particularly unhappily – a writer working in the radio, well established in the intelligentsia of communist Berlin, with as many mistresses as publications.

They are drawn together with such a power that they suspect fate must be involved. Even as they enact the mundane betrayals of infidelity – walks, films, listening to music, dinners, café rendezvous, secret holidays, illicit sex sessions – they feel impelled by a power beyond them that dwarfs their love, even as it gives body to it. This force is History with a capital H, the zeitgeist, that uncapturable urge of time which only cares for its own realisation.

History, being history, crushes them. The dying gasps of the German Democratic Republic offered the conditions for their impossible relationship to operate briefly. History then – ironically and indifferently – provides the constrictions that make its end inevitable.

As the German Democratic Republic collapses, their relationship becomes like the one between the dying state and its subjects: paranoid, accusatory, peremptory and mournful over its evident finiteness. The novel plunges towards its tragic ending with an inevitability that is not any less powerful for, well, being inevitable.

The extent to which someone will enjoy this novel undoubtedly depends on the extent to which they agree (and empathise) with its account of history, the links between the personal and the political, and the style and form that such concerns ought to take.

The book is densely introspective and realistic in its sensibility. The style is weighty, suffocating, pressing. History is a nightmare from which everyone wishes to awake but cannot. Form, mode and tone do not allow any escape. As Erpenbeck puts it in a characteristically dense passage, fusing emotion and ideas, “the future” (and we might add, given the novel’s interests, the past) “trails its loose ends into the present until it becomes the present, settles on one or other human flesh, and its flourishing or brazen regime abruptly begins.”

Even as it depicts a rich world of feeling – layered, ambivalent, fractious, at times even beautiful, replete with hope – it nonetheless frames this world through the lens of a tragic view of time. By the end, the characters are subjected to such degradations and humiliations that it becomes almost too much.

A fresh addition to the Pantheon

Its winning of the International Booker Prize means it joins a list of classics of the German Democratic Republic.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos join a whole slate of classics that document the last days of the German Democratic Republic. Image: Booker Prize / Katharina Behling

It bears a strong relation to Christa Wolf’s (who is mentioned briefly) The Quest for Christa T. (1968), which follows two childhood friends from the Second World War in East Germany. The book’s emphasis on documentary evidence and the personal decline of the self, body, and the world can be seen in Kairos.

Kairos’s dislocated sense of alienated and exiled East German personal worlds bears some resemblance to Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. This nearly 1,700-page epic, published between 1970 and 1983, juxtaposes 1960s America with life in Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic through Gesine Cresspahl, who flees postwar East Germany to raise her young daughter, Marie, in New York.

We can also add it to the list of those important contemporary books that continue to grapple with the shattering effects of 20th-century European history on human bodies and minds. It reminded me of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, a similar documentary history of the haunting of the European soul by the violence of its past and, of course, the unparalleled work of German writer W.G. Sebald.

Its concerns are weighty and monumental. It believes in the capacity of the novel to offer the lived history of the individual against the official narratives of state history. It possesses a rare seriousness in suggesting the simple, but often unacknowledged, literary truism that difficult times are difficult to confront, voice and read about. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. Edward Sugden is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at King’s College London.

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