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Jenny Erpenbeck: Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days)

In 2013, a year after this book was published in German but a year before it was published in English, Kate Atkinson published Life After Life. That novel told the story of Ursula Todd. Ursula was born and almost immediately died. She was then born again but survived but still died when young. She was then born again and lived longer. This continues for the rest of her life. She has vague memories of her previous deaths but nothing substantial. No explanation is given for these events. An earlier book was Kem Grimwood’s Replay, which tells the story of a man who dies when he is around forty but immediately comes back to his life when he was seventeen, remembering his previous life. This happens several times but, each time, he is reborn a bit later. Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel is a variation on this theme, though without the whimsy of Atkinson and Grimwood.

The heroine of this book is not named till the final chapter, when she is in an old peoples’ home and, as we are told at the beginning of the chapter, about to die. At this point, we are given her married name – Frau Hoffmann. However, while this will be her final death, she has died four times previously. Erpenbeck does not do whimsy, so her deaths are explained and logical. In each case, we are given a range of possible reasons why she might have been spared death and Erpenbeck then selects one of these options as the most likely. For example, the child dies in her cot aged eight months. When she seems to stop breathing, neither parent knows what to do and by the time help is summoned, she is dead. However, Erpenbeck suggests that had one of the parents – it is, in fact, the mother – grabbed a handful of snow from outside and rubbed it on the child, the cold would have revived her and she would have lived.

In each of the four deaths, Erpenbeck tells the story as though she did die. In this first case, the mother is devastated and sits on her grandmother’s stool, unable to do anything. It is her mother who deals with the situation. The father, equally devastated, withdraws from the bank the money he received from her dowry and emigrates to the United States. However, when she is revived by the snow, the story takes a very different turn, as happens in all four cases.

Frau Hoffmann – I shall have to call her that, even though she does not become Frau Hoffmann for a while – has a chequered life and, clearly, Erpenbeck’s intention is to show the difficulties experienced by people, particularly Jewish people, who lived in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family lives in Galicia (modern day Poland). Her mother’s family was Jewish, her father’s was not. Her grandfather and grandmother had been the victims of an anti-Semitic pogrom by Poles, in which the grandfather had been killed and the mother injured. The mother, then a young baby, had been protected by the wet nurse. The father was a low-level civil servant, working on the railway. He was in debt and married Frau Hoffmann’s mother, partially for the money from the dowry and partially because he was sexually attracted to her. The family subsequently tried to conceal their Jewish origins, not least because, if the father did not, it would have hindered his career.

Frau Hoffmann does not have an easy life. The family moves to Vienna and are there during and after World War I. Times are very hard, particularly as there is now a younger sister. There are huge food shortages and the father does not earn enough to feed them properly. Frau Hoffmann, at this time, supplements her income by sleeping with men. (Her mother had done the same thing in the first scenario, when her husband emigrated to the United States.) After another death, she becomes a communist and, after the rise of Hitler, she moves to Moscow with her husband, Herr Hoffmann, also a communist. She died there, of course, but in the alternative story comes back to East Germany where she is a successful writer.

This is certainly not just a clever, whimsical novel, like the Grimwood and Atkinson. While wondering how she is going to die and how she is going to survive naturally add to the interest, the depiction of the horrors and vicissitudes of life – anti-Semitism, war, starvation, prostitution, the Soviet system, the fall of the Berlin Wall – shows us how people from that part of the world suffered. But the story also shows us the nature of random chance. In giving us not just one but, in some cases, several possibilities, Erpenbeck shows us the randomness of life. A chance meeting (or such a meeting just avoided), a decision (or lack of decision) by an official, an accident which could easily have been avoided, all of these things have doubtless happened to many of us without our realising it and changed our lives completely, the way Frau Hoffmann’s life is irrevocably changed by random and/or chance occurrences

The novel is also about death, of course. A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days, Frau Hoffmann knows. But it is also about memory. Only in the first scenario, for example, does Frau Hoffman know how her grandfather died. In the rest of the book, her mother tells her that he left, probably to emigrate. Frau Hoffmann’s son, Sasha, born in the Soviet Union, believes his father was killed in the Battle of Kharkov. He was not. Though he does meet him in one alternative scenario, in the main story he does not. Indeed, he and his children know little of his antecedents. Jenny Erpenbeck has shown herself to be one of the foremost contemporary German novelists and this novel only helps to confirm it.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Knaus
First English translation by New Directions in 2014