Tag Archives: German literature

Building Bridges interview series: Jen Calleja

Jen Calleja is a translator from German to English, and a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. She was the inaugural Translator in Residence at the British Library (2017-2019), and in 2019 was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). 

How do you find new works to translate, and how do you choose publishers to pitch your translations to?

The majority of translations that I’ve worked on have come from direct commissions, with publishers getting in touch with me and asking me if I’d like to translate that book, or asking me to write a reader report first, then a sample. Pitching is an exhausting, long-game process, because publishers are very busy, and even if you find an amazing book you have to convince a publisher that it fits with their list. And translation is very expensive, so there’s the issue of whether a publisher would opt to do a translation if they weren’t looking to do one. I have pitched in the past, but I’ve been quite unsuccessful, and I think that’s something that quite a lot of even experienced translators share. It’s an arduous process and can be quite disheartening.

And how did you come across the work of Michelle Steinbeck and Marion Poschmann?

I used to work at the Goethe Institute, and I was involved with the New Books in German magazine. One of the editors there recommended Michelle’s book and it was everything I loved – a surreal contemporary fairytale, which is the kind of writing I really adore. I was reading Leonora Carrington at the time and it reminded me of her, and of Angela Carter, and I read it and mentioned to the Swiss Arts Council that I would love to translate that and they told me the rights were available. They had been sold to Darf Publishing, and so I put all my energy into convincing them that I should be the one to do it, so I did a sample and I contacted them with that, and they commissioned me to do it. As for Marion, I’d heard of her when Serpent’s Tail asked me to do a reader’s report, and I read it (The Pine Islands) and recognised that it was very special and unusual and unexpected. Obviously I didn’t realise it would end up shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, but I was very confident that it was amazing.

How has being part of the Man Booker International prize helped to promote your work as a translator, and do you feel that the importance of translators is represented in media coverage of the prize?

It gave me validation as a translator to be nominated for a prize like that, because so many of my heroes have been up for that prize. But it also made me feel very panicky because of coming under such scrutiny; many of us witnessed the level of attention Deborah [Smith] had with The Vegetarian, I was very aware that it brings a lot of focus to your work in both good and bad ways. In terms of the media reception, a big deal was made about the fact that it was “dominated” by women, which made me feel very strange because I thought it was presumptuous and it made me feel uncomfortable. I was approached by the New York Times about a piece on why there were so many women translators on the shortlist, and I said that I thought the whole question was ridiculous, that this isn’t something that women are biologically better at, and if it had been the converse no-one would have bothered discussing it. So that was really reducing something that should have been very celebratory for the books, when so much space was taken up by the fact that we were women. There was that moment as well when The Guardian were reporting on the prize and forgot to mention any of the translators in the print edition and had to correct it online. So that missed the whole point of the prize. And you get people saying “I don’t understand why translators get half the money”. But the winner always gets a huge amount of publicity, which is amazing. And the way the build-up to the prize works is to get as much attention as possible for the books at the longlisting and shortlisting stage.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature, and how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

Speaking from my own experience, there are a lot of different reasons why it happens. In terms of German-language publishers commissioning sample translations, nine times out of ten the authors they choose will be male. I’ve done about twenty sample translations in the past few years, and nearly all of them have been men. Also English-language publishers are interested to know if an author has already been translated and won awards, and certainly in Germany it’s often commented on that the longlists and shortlists for awards are predominantly male. So there are issues in the whole infrastructure, and then in the publishing industry there’s still not parity for women being published in English, let alone in translation. And in reviewing culture we know that women aren’t reviewed as much as men, so the problem is from the top to the bottom. There are obviously other issues, such as class: other translators have commented that if you translated a woman, because of the class structures in other countries you’re translating women who are predominantly upper or middle class, so they get translated, but what about all the working-class authors? I think about this a lot, because I’m from a working-class background. Michelle is from a working-class background, but usually you’re translating authors from a completely different background to you, one of privilege. But the gender question is one I’m very aware of. I only really see women if I’m trying to seek out something new.

What do you think might usefully be done to respond to and overcome such biases?

It’s not just in the publishing industry. Sexism and gender bias exist in society as a whole, so until we’ve reached full equality in all realms of life… I mean, people are still challenging the idea that there is gender bias in literature, and there is the VIDA count which is trying to concretise those figures in terms of bias, but people are still against it. So firstly there has to be an acceptance that it exists. There are people consciously opting into publishing women; for example with Marion Poschmann, the publisher specifically wanted to publish more women in translation. So people are making those kind of changes, but it has to be a long-term thing: it might be that for the next year or two people make a big thing of publishing women to push it forward, but people are so reactionary against that kind of positive discrimination without really acknowledging what comes before it. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a historical context. So it’s about making some real choices about women in translation, making an effort to work with women translators, using that as a consultancy basis to find more women. Maybe not using awards as a basis for quality all the time. If the problem already exists in the original country and setting in terms of awards, then a lot of women will struggle.

Do you think that German-language women writers are well represented in translated literature? What/ who would you like to see gain greater recognition?

German as a language is very well represented, better than some other languages. Most of the major European languages are doing okay. There are some amazing German-language women authors, for example Jenny Erpenbeck is one of the major stars of the last few years, and there are many authors who I’ve met for example at the Austrian Cultural Forum who I’d love to translate, but like any foreign-language author who hasn’t been translated, so many of them are famous in their own country but have no recognition here. For example, Olga Tokarczuk was renowned in her own culture, but it’s only in the last couple of years through translation that she’s gained recognition over here. People are saying that one day she could win the Nobel Prize, but without translation that wouldn’t happen [note: since the date of this interview, Tokarczuk did indeed win the Nobel Prize in Literature]. And that’s because English has such a dominant hold on literature worldwide, which is wrong. And that’s why we push for translation into English, because we need it. I mean that in an existential, soul sense; we’re starving for outside voices. We’re so insular and becoming more insular, we think that our way of looking at ourselves is enough, but the only way to really know yourself is to ask a stranger or someone who can see us from the outside, but we don’t want that. There’s a kind of arrogance there, and it’s the reputation that we’ve always had and it’s getting worse and worse, and now we’ve started to believe our own myth, and that’s why it’s important to have translation.

The human side of a humanitarian crisis: Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Oneworld, 2019)

City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a soaring, searing representation of the Syrian refugee crisis, following the lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising. Above all, it is a superb story; Grjasnowa’s stark, gripping prose is translated with clarity and compassion by Derbyshire, making this an engaging and deeply moving read. What sets City of Jasmine apart from other European texts focusing on refugees (such as Jenny Erpenbeck’s admittedly marvellous Go Went Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books) is that Grjasnowa’s novel is not about refugees as broken individuals arriving in Europe, but as people with lives that are being torn apart, leaving them with no option but to flee. This shift in perspective challenges western readers to step outside the ways in which we receive and perceive the political situation, and to consider the human dimension of this humanitarian crisis.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

City of Jasmine is a brave indictment of the Syrian regime, and follows the entangled lives of Amal, Hammoudi and Youssef as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. Grjasnowa’s husband is Syrian, and on her UK book tour she commented that her desire to better understand the situation in his homeland was a motivation for writing City of Jasmine. It does not pretend to be a Syrian book: this is a European book, written for a European audience, with subtle explanatory details that would not be necessary for a Syrian readership. These are carefully rendered by Derbyshire in the translation: there is no information overload, no didactic or “educational” prose, but rather the detail is full and informative without being conspicuous or heavy-handed. I don’t usually go in for lengthy quotations, but this one, from towards the start of the story, is worth reading and exemplifies what I mean about the clarity, subtle detail, and lyricism of the prose:

“People were sick and tired. Amal was tired, her brother was tired, her friends, her fellow students, acquaintances, strangers in the streets, the entire vulgar bohème was sick and tired. They were sick and tired of the corruption, the secret services’ arbitrary decisions, their own powerlessness and permanent humiliation. They were sick and tired of all public libraries, airports, stadiums, universities, parks and even kindergartens being named after the Assads. They were sick and tired of their fathers, brothers and uncles mouldering in jails. They were sick and tired of the whole family having to chip in to buy the sons out of military service while the North American teenagers on cable TV were given cars by their parents and travelled the world. They were sick and tired of reciting ‘Assad for all eternity’ every morning at school and swearing to fight all Americans, Zionists and imperialists. They were sick and tired of memorizing Assad quotes in political-education classes and then filling in the gaps in the right order for their tests. They were sick and tired of being taught in military education to dismantle and reassemble a machine gun. They were sick and tired of being treated like animals. And above all they were sick and tired of not being allowed to say any of it out loud.”

The Syria depicted in City of Jasmine is a country in the grip of the secret services, where women and dissidents are silenced (“She’s full of unsaid words and she knows she’ll never speak them, not as long as Bashar al-Assad and his accursed family are in power”), where propaganda is the only news and no-one offers aid (“The state TV stations repeat the tale of alleged terrorists and show images of martyrs who died for Assad’s glory. The West does nothing, still nothing”). It is a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent, not to think we know about something just because we have seen a version of it on the news.

Grjasnowa’s subjects are neither downtrodden nor disadvantaged; their lives when we meet them are far removed from western depictions of refugees. Amal is from a wealthy family and works as an actress, but opposing the state makes everyone equal in persecution (though her father’s money and contacts ensure that she is released when detained), and indeed Grjasnowa sheds light on the status of those who make it beyond their own borders: “It’s the middle classes escaping; the poor remain behind in the refugee camps. It’s the people who once hoped for more from life than simply reaching a safe country, who once had ambitions and a future.” Yet this does not make City of Jasmine a story of privilege, but rather adds a thought-provoking, human dimension, as Amal cannot cope with being seen as a refugee, someone with nothing to her name except all the labels that come along with the situation into which she has been forced: “She hates being seen as a Muslim and a scrounger and she hates herself. The world has invented a new race – the race of refugees, Flüchtlinge, Muslims or newcomers. The condescension is palpable in every breath.”

This presentation forces us out of sanctimonious preconceptions and facile prejudices: the indictment is not only of the Syrian regime, but also of the way in which the west views the crisis and the people affected by it. Amal’s fate is loosely entwined with that of Hammoudi, a young doctor with a bright future. Hammoudi returns to Syria to renew his passport before taking up a prestigious job as a surgeon in Paris’s most elite hospital, and finds himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to leave his country even though his life is elsewhere. One of France’s most promising surgeons, he becomes an illegal war doctor, and when he is forced to flee to the west he becomes a refugee too, despite the life he already had in Paris.

I always try to avoid spoilers, so I can’t tell you how City of Jasmine ends and the twist that moved me most; I can only recommend that you read it for yourself. I’m careful not to over-use the adjective “heartbreaking” – it comes too easily and can mean so little if bandied around. But this story truly merits the word “heartbreaking” – beautifully written, sensitively translated, a unique and welcome perspective on the refugee crisis. I loved every page of this book, and I highly recommend it.

 

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

“I sense a future within me”: coming of age as the wall comes down. Kerstin Hensel, Dance by the Canal

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Peirene, 2017)

Dance by the Canal was the third book released by Peirene in their “East and West” series, and narrates an unconventional coming of age at a pivotal moment in German history (Kerstin Hensel’s original text, Tanz am Kanal, was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Yet although Dance by the Canal could be read as a novel about the GDR and its demise, it is much more than this, suggesting what could happen when a woman cannot fit into any of the roles imposed on her. The narrative challenges the framework of German society both before and after reunification, questioning any system presented as ideal, and offering other ways of living – in particular, through writing. That is not to say that Hensel proposes any new utopia in place of the discredited one(s): on the contrary, this is not a story of coming-of-age success, but rather the story of a decline and descent, with an uncertain ending.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Kerstin Hensel is a prolific author, having published over thirty books and won several literary prizes. Jen Calleja recently finished her time as Translator in Residence at the British Library: this was her first translated novel (though she had previously translated non-fiction), and it’s an astonishing debut. Dance by the Canal can’t have been an easy book to translate, as it is imbued not only with the specific history of the GDR, but also with alienating uses of language and an unusual plotline that is meant to destabilise. Indeed, at a recent encounter between Hensel and Calleja, Calleja noted that she had never read anything like it and that, when reading this book, you have to let go of the “typical reading experience”. Perhaps that’s why I needed to read it twice: in my first reading, I enjoyed Dance by the Canal, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting, and I thought I’d missed something obvious because I didn’t understand the ending. When Calleja pointed out that the ending is deliberately destabilising, it was like the clouds parting: there wasn’t necessarily some deeper meaning that I had failed to detect, but rather I had failed to detect the intention of the book itself. It is supposed to be surreal, deliberately leaves questions unanswered, and consciously blurs boundaries between what is “truth” and what is “fiction”.

One of the central thrusts of the novel is the tension between name and identity: the main character, Gabriela von Haßlau, comes from an upper-middle-class family at a time when, under Communism, there were not supposed to be any class differences. Nonetheless, her difference is apparent throughout: she is teased at school for her aristocratic name, but at home she is a “silly little Binka”, never managing to live up to her parents’ expectations of the accomplishments she ought to possess. Gabriela’s father is a vascular surgeon, a patriarch, an abuser of power, and a heavy drinker; her mother is a fickle society hostess. Their aristocratic pretentions are juxtaposed with the chaotic hilarity of a larger-than-life uncle, but farcical family gatherings soon tip into darkness when the words “they’ve shot your Uncle Schorsch” signal the end of the “bad German” in the family. Even this event is shrouded in mystery, and shielded from Gabriela: “Father called Uncle Schorsch a fool, even though he hated the Russians too; they were the reason for his sadness, his fog… I was sent out of the room.” Gabriela is repeatedly dismissed from important conversations, and understands very little of what is happening around her, trapped as she is in other people’s narratives of reality.

“The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real.”

Throughout her story, Gabriela must try to avoid madness (or falling down the “last hole”) and run from an “awakening”. She is abused as a child (an encounter which she mistakes for love), raped as an adult (which is denounced as an episode of self-harm), pressured to become a mole for the secret police (though she is adamant that she knows nothing) – then “saved” by a group of feminist journalists who want to publish her story. Most of the people she meets attempt to exploit her in one way or another, and she never truly fits in anywhere: she is not allowed to be friends with Katka, a working class girl from a squalid home, but yet Katka is the only true friend she has. She is a poet and a writer, but lives variously under a bridge and in the broom cupboard of the tavern where she washes glasses under the watchful eye of the other homeless people of the fictitious East German town of Leibnitz. This eventful, unconventional life is summed up by Gabriela herself: “Anhaltinian nobility. Fffon Haßlau. Poet. Naked in front of a cop. Who’ll believe it?” Gabriela isn’t only a victim, though. She rejects complicity with the way of life imposed on her, leaving school, forming connections with people her family disapprove of, and ultimately choosing the path that her family would most revile: becoming homeless. But even as a homeless person she does not fit in: she is laughed at by her peers, and prizes paper as highly as food, writing her story on whatever scavenged paper she can find.

Two stories unfold at once: the life Gabriela is living, and the life that led up to it. Through the writing of her story, Gabriela takes us back from the present, throughout her past, and leads up to the end, the “once in a century summer” which is actually where the story began. The narrative develops in a way that can only be described as surreal: after leaving school, Gabriela is given a desk job at the cultural centre of an industrial plant, where she was supposed to have been training as a mechanical engineer. She is to be a mole, though this is not clear to her at first (she gets fired, but is encouraged to carry on writing, though she is not entirely sure why). But perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes is when Gabriela attends an arts evening, where she is to read her poetry, her “last chance” (it is unclear exactly what this “last chance” means – the last chance for redemption, yes, but the form this redemption is to take is not explicit). Gabriela sees Samuel (her mother’s lover) and asks him where her mother is. He simply replies “Haven’t you heard?” and is then carried off by the crowd before Gabriela can ascertain what she apparently has not heard (and which is never revealed to us). She then sees Frau Popiol, her childhood violin teacher, who propels her onto the stage where Gabriela reads out her poetry (to rapturous applause), before being whirled off into dancing. Gabriela recognises that she is “sick” and the whole episode is entirely surreal, all the more so when she ends up dancing with someone in a creased black dress, and realises it is her childhood friend Katka, now an artist. Gabriela awakes the next morning naked at home, with the door broken down and the sinister, grotesque secret police officer Queck standing above her.

The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real. She alone knows the distinction between her reality and her fiction, and any over-explanation in the translation would not have done justice to Hensel’s original. Calleja does not interpret for the reader, but rather leaves space for interpretation: if the German is disorientating, then the English should be no less so. Indeed, this is one of the great successes of the translation: if there is any alienation from the text, it is because it is meant to be alienating. This is not a story of communist oppression and capitalist redemption, but a story of a woman who cannot find her place in any regime. Gabriela’s only path is to write, but this is not simply because she is a victim who has no other place in the system. Rather, she writes to carve out a new space for herself, taking control of her story in order to survive: “ I sense a future within me: something could come of my story.” Her story is at times absurd, but this serves to highlight the absurdity of a society beset by amnesia and the re-writing of history. Into this history Gabriela writes her own: a compelling, challenging, messy history, but one that is uniquely hers, and which Calleja deftly re-tells to a new audience.

 

 

“Pulling apart the threads of destiny”: Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

Jenny Erpenbeck is hailed as one of Europe’s most highly regarded writers, and in 2015 her stunning novel The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (the last one before it was merged with the Man Booker International Prize). As with the first book I read for this project (also published by Portobello – they have a wonderful translated fiction list), I have to thank my husband for introducing me to Erpenbeck: he was one of the judges on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I remember him talking to me animatedly about The End of Days at the time. It took me three years to get around to following his recommendation, but it was worth the wait. The End of Days is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died). At various points throughout the twentieth century, the same character dies as a baby, a teenager, a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an old woman, with the underlying premise that “the day on which a life comes to an end is far from being the end of days”. It’s a gripping, page-turning, emotion-investing joy of a book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Susan Bernofsky is Erpenbeck’s regular translator, and this translation is flawless. Indeed, Bernofsky is rapidly becoming someone whose work I would actively seek out (I recently read her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and it’s equally stunning). Most recently, Erpenbeck published Go, Went, Gone (also translated by Bernofsky, and also published by Portobello), which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

Image taken from portobellobooks.com

Boyd Tonkin (founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and author of the forthcoming 100 Best Novels in Translation), says of Erpenbeck that “Her female protagonists, thrust into proximity to total war, genocide, or social upheaval in Germany and the adjacent lands, must survive and seek freedom amid the blood and fire of this uniform collective destiny”: The End of Days sweeps through twentieth-century history, refusing to align itself with any one system, ideology, or “collective destiny”. It is both a reflection on the minuteness of a single human life and a manifesto for the difference one life can make. Endings are never definitive, and the narrative is circular rather than linear: we keep returning to the handful of snow that saved the baby’s life, and even the Complete Works of Goethe goes full circle as the main character’s son considers buying it for her in an antique shop, unaware that it was the very volume pawned by her mother decades ago. He leaves it on the shelf, along with his past – an example of Erpenbeck’s resolute avoidance of the trite or the simplistic.

Reviews of The End of Days have – unsurprisingly – been overwhelmingly positive, but mostly have a sting in the tail somewhere (for example, though Kapka Kassabova finds it “exhilarating” and “shot through with an insight that almost blinds”, she also at times finds it “over-constructed and rootless”, and Alice Fishburn describes it as “beautifully written”, but “not easy on the reader”). For me, though, there’s no caveat to my appreciation of this book: the construction is powerful and thought-provoking, its roots firmly in twentieth-century history but entwined with existential speculation, and if ever I felt that it was not easy owing to the reluctance to name characters or my own lack of familiarity with some of the historical phenomena, it only made me re-read and further engage with the text in front of me.

“This book is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant.”

Each of the five books within the story depicts a different possible path for the protagonist’s life: in the first scenario, an infant girl dies, and the mother is left childless and abandoned by her husband. In the second, the child lives because her mother thought to put a handful of snow on her chest when she was dying, and she grows up in Vienna during the First World War. She feels that life is like a round black room with no door, and that she can never be loved, while her mother cannot shake the belief that “all her life she’s paid for having snatched her first child back from hell with nothing more than a handful of snow”. She dies in a suicide pact gone wrong, leaving the mother mourning again. The third section sees the girl now a woman, a Communist writer living in Moscow. She is writing her life story; her husband has been arrested, and she knows that “they” may come for her soon. The section ends when she falls asleep on her desk, and does not hear them come for her in the early hours of the morning.

In the fourth book, the as yet unnamed protagonist dies at the beginning, a noted and respected anti-fascist who devoted her life to working tirelessly for the working classes. She has died falling down a staircase in her home (an event foreshadowed at various points throughout the book), leaving her son Sasha behind. This section is narrated from Sasha’s perspective, and gives us a personal insight into the main character as she aged. There is a man at the funeral who he instinctively knows is the father he never met, and this knowledge is explained in a phrase that sums up everything I loved about the style of this beautiful book: “it’s as if his memory were a curtain suddenly ripping in two”.

What if she didn’t die from a fall? In the fifth book, the woman – now given a name, Frau Hoffman – has lived to be a grandmother, but she is going senile. The story comes full circle as her son travels to Vienna, and in an antique shop tries to find a gift to bring back for his mother, and almost buys the very Complete Works of Goethe that his great-grandmother brought with her at the start of the century, and which has passed from them to a pawn shop when the women were deported, from where it was purchased by a war bride. After her death many years later, it finds its way back to an antique shop by way of her daughter. The cycles, contingencies, departures and returns reflect the protagonist’s repeated lingering at “the entrance to the underworld”, and her repeated retreat to live out another possible version of her days.

The End of Days is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions: What difference does one life make? Is a longer life always a better life? What impact does one choice in one moment have on the course of a life, and of history? Does one seemingly random event merely make a person deviate temporarily from the course of their fate, only to return to the same fate in a different way? Yet Erpenbeck never pontificates, never offers answers to these questions: instead, she exposes the interplay of chance and contingency on which life – a single life, and all life – is based. If you feel as though enough literature has been written about twentieth-century German history, think again. You need The End of Days on your bookshelf.

Note: “Pulling apart the threads of destiny” is a description taken from the Portobello books website.