“The End of Days” by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 256 pages, $22.95)
Death is not the end of possibility. On the contrary, the possible lives on in a kind of eternal present, plump and plentiful, intimate and inviting, yielding, in the end, to the highest bidder of the imagination. What could have been still is in its nascent potency. Only one thing – however trivial, however momentous – needs change for possibility to become reality.
Consider the burial of an 8-month-old Jewish girl in a small town in Galicia (now part of Poland and Ukraine) near the turn of the 20th century, the opening set piece in Jenny Erpenbeck’s magical new novel, “The End of Days.”
With each handful of dirt tossed into the grave, the girl’s mother grieves the loss of her child as a definitive and immutable event, immune to the vicissitudes of change. “She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.”
Yet the infant’s death also calls forth massive possibilities.
What if “the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again.”
What would have happened if she had survived? Where might she have gone? What might she have learned? Who might she have become?
These questions color “The End of Days,” in which death is swallowed up in possibilities, each leading to a new life and new death for the unnamed protagonist. Time after time, the freedom of escape, the freedom of unanticipated fate. The freedom of what might have been. All as her mother yearned to imagine on that mournful day.
Astute readers will recognize how “The End of Days” echoes the conceit of Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” which explored the same type of existential dynamic of dying then being reborn.
But what sets Erpenbeck’s work apart from this purely coincidental publishing phenomenon is the luminous quality of her prose, masterfully modulated throughout the novel.
On this bit of steppe, 45.61404 degrees latitude north, 70.751954 degrees longitude east, there are only three months a year without frost. In only a few weeks, the grass will lose this green tint it displays, it will turn brown, and when the wind blows one stalk against the other, it will rustle faintly. Before the first snow falls, tiny ice crystals will cover the blades, and even the little stones on the surface of the steppe will without exception be covered with hoarfrost and freeze together. Once the frost sets in, it will no longer be possible for the wind to blow the stones about.
Poetically translated by Susan Bernofsky, the book takes its title from the saying “Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend,” meaning: “It isn’t over until the end of all days.”
Death is not the end of all days, as it turns out; rather, life continues in all its rhythmic singularity beyond the grave. Death, seemingly irredeemable, is haunted by the intractable shadow of life. A life scored with contingencies and minor disasters, to be sure – falling down stairs, skidding on a patch of ice, giving a fateful hug. Yet for our perennially reborn heroine, these quotidian details form the threads in the greater tapestry of history: two world wars and their tortured aftermath, the rise and spread of communism, the bifurcation of Germany, the fatal suspicions of the Cold War, the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall.
Thus, Erpenbeck tells the story of the 20th century in Eastern Europe through the various lives of her nameless heroine. Each times she dies, an “intermezzo” suggests an alternative outcome, and she goes on to live a new life:
“The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days.”
As the novel’s great themes – time, fate, coincidence and chance – intermingle in the impermanence of death, we see the infant grow into a restless teenager in Vienna; a young wife in Moscow harried by the secret police; a middle-aged Soviet author writing in East Berlin; a demented nonagenarian shuffling through a nursing home.
In Erpenbeck’s hands, the incidental details of each life create a “constant translation between the far outside and deep within,“ linking the particular to the collective, the personal to the historical.
Likewise, throughout the book, lyrical motifs resonate in each character’s musings, forming layer upon layer of the poetry of fatality, the poetry of frailty.
The irony of this poetry is that the prospect of a future life offers little comfort: “If you get even the slightest bit off track, the consequences in the end are just as inescapable as if you’d gone and leapt head first into this or that abyss.” In the opening section, the girl’s father flees to America; the mother is reduced to prostitution. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.
“Is it a sign of cowardice if one leaves one’s life behind, or a sign of character if one has the strength to start anew?” the father wonders.
The Moscow section of the novel may be the bleakest, as the young woman is sent to a forced-labor camp, then shot during Stalin’s gulag purges. A devoted communist, she betrays herself by associating with a Trotskyite. The moral: The individual must yield to the state in all things. There is no private life.
Which raises the question: Is dying as a political prisoner worse than wandering befuddled through an old folks’ home toward some undignified end? The answer doesn’t seem to matter to Erpenbeck, because chance rules in every scenario she creates.
And chance brings each incarnation closer to the abiding truth of living, its radical uncertainty, its idiosyncratic destiny: “If only you could know in advance where the path you choose freely will lead.”
We cannot know in advance, of course, but for Erpenbeck, the path of “The End of Days” leads exactly where it aims: to the indeterminate deep within her characters and readers alike, which stirs the beginning of all days.
Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.