The Turbulence of History: On Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Kairos”
By John DominiJuly 6, 2023
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck
The alacrity of Erpenbeck’s prose never flags throughout. Here’s Kairos on a second major theme, history: “[T]here is no other walking, ever, for a German than over the skulls, eyes, mouths, and skeletons,” and “each step stirs these depths.” And here (while again nodding to identity and history), the text broods on art: “To slice away the emotion from yourself, and put it on a slide under a microscope, that was art in this bloody goddamned twentieth century.”
The novel has a lot going on, to be sure, and in fact none of these three citations mention what may be its primary concern: essentially, Kairos is a love story. It follows a couple doomed from the first: their romance is not only May-December and extramarital, but it’s also unfolding in East Berlin just as both city and country are getting wiped from the map. The uproar of 1988–89 resounds across their affair, rendering the couple’s breakdown both more fascinating in itself and more richly significant for the entire previous century.
Erpenbeck’s fiction is forever brooding on the turbulence of history, the way it disfigures everyone in its path. She swept through decades of European upheaval in her first pair of books, Visitation (2008; English trans. 2010) and The End of Days (2012; English trans. 2014), both unconventional short novels with no major protagonist—or more precisely, in the case of Days, the same protagonist living different lifetimes. That text ranks with the finest fictional experiments of the current generation, as inventive as Italo Calvino structurally and yet rooted in grim realities such as the Holocaust. In the subsequent Go, Went, Gone (2015; English trans. 2017), however, Erpenbeck worked up a narrative more linear and character-driven. The drama had a rare focus—African refugees in Berlin. Their displacement moves a retired German professor, an Easterner and Slav who has himself lost a home, and he tries to help. The novel proved a sensation, winning a number of awards and prompting critics like James Wood to put the still-young German author (born in 1967) on their short list for a Nobel.
This success prompted publication of a wide-ranging selection of essays, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (2019; English trans. 2020), but Kairos asserts itself at once as part of Go, Went, Gone’s artistic progression. Erpenbeck’s longest fiction yet, its two protagonists are presented in straightforward chronology (earlier episodes occur in flashback), and I finished the book convinced that she had outdone herself. As for the Swedish Academy, I’ll leave the choice to them, but I can say that the novel speaks to all of Europe, where it’s come from and where it’s going, in ways reminiscent of the recent Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. I can see that to understand Erpenbeck’s power, I have to start in her toolshed: with her metaphors, so quick and provocative.
The translator this time is Michael Hofmann. In English, he’s also a distinguished poet, and his work with German includes stylists as diverse as Franz Kafka and Elias Canetti. Not surprisingly, his Erpenbeck captures the ferment of her prose, its imagistic volatility. He’s adroit even with a striking dip into formal German locution: for example, a description of “someone who just superficially resembles the person one thought one knew.” That pronoun overload contributes to a complex context as well; it’s at once tongue-in-cheek and serious, taking us yet again to the puzzle of identity. Hofmann can juggle all that on one page, and on another distill several varieties of irony into a single streetwise word. The older lover actually did a brief stint in the Hitler Youth, and when he recalls those days, back-to-back paragraphs end with a word derived from Yiddish—schemozzle.
Such shocks and delights abound, as exciting as any in Erpenbeck’s three previous novels, and yet those had another translator: Susan Bernofsky. When I interviewed Erpenbeck about Go, Went, Gone, not far from her home in Berlin, she claimed a special rapport with Bernofsky. Still, for the essay collection, she turned to Kurt Beals, and for this new novel Hofmann, and in neither case do I detect any drop-off in subtlety or impact. The implication seems clear; this author may have been fortunate in her translators, but the luck runs both ways. Erpenbeck writes with such muscle and snap that she can stop a reader in their tracks even as, miraculously, her prose rhythms draw them on. Her style leaves its stamp even on the phrasing of a regional proverb: “[H]ope is pushing up the daisies.”
A downer of an aphorism, it also speaks to the plot. When the lovers first cross paths, it seems an act of Kairos—a Greek good-luck imp identified at the book’s outset. Hans and Katharina catch each other’s eye on an East Berlin bus and waste no time thereafter: coffee, dinner, bed. It’s a mutual seduction—she is “grinning almost constantly”—but it establishes the elements that will eventually tear these two apart.
Hans is pushing 50, the married father of a high schooler, while Katharina is barely older than his son and still living with her mother. She’s starting out in a combined vocational and creative program, with a vague notion of going into the German Democratic Republic’s cultural arm, while he’s already on the Socialist pension plan, with books in print and a radio gig. The point of view switches between the two, speedy yet smooth, echt Erpenbeck. This not only sets off the lovers’ differences but also creates an authorial presence alert to both history and the present moment—the late 1980s. A kind of apocalypse looms, one that will sweep away the system on which both protagonists depend, though it’s integral to who they think they are. Their Kairos seems straight out of Ovid: a god who exacts a steep price for its metamorphoses.
Yet if the end of love seems inevitable, its decline and fall proves remarkably suspenseful. Most of the secrets and surprises somehow illuminate larger forces at work, economic or political, yet front and center is the couple’s intimate connection. Erpenbeck moves boldly into explicit sex, a new arena for her. The Holocaust and the Gulag cast their pall, even coming up between stolen kisses, yet neither Hans and Katharina can go long without those kisses. Illicit love generates a heat from which Kairos can’t shrink, and in time there’s BDSM and a lesbian fling.
Again, these kinks often sound the novel’s primary themes. Questioning the self, for instance, goes along with sexual experimentation. So too this author draws savvy connections both to past agonies and to the purpose of art amid that agony. Before Hans first takes Katharina to bed, he puts on Mozart’s Requiem, with its libretto of “trembling and dread” before Eternal Judgment. The two of them dance with love and death, those poles that define our humanity, and at the same time, the soundtrack references the Enlightenment, its glories and failures. Amid such brainy juxtapositions, the embraces don’t lack for sensuality: “[T]hey shut their eyes again, the better to see with their hands and mouths.”
If Tokarczuk makes a decent comparison for her treatment of history, the freewheeling eroticism of this latest Erpenbeck recalls older European models such as Marguerite Duras. The very first pages of Kairos will get it banned in Florida. Indeed, no simplistic morality, whether hard right or far left, can contain this narrative. Whatever the norms one might try to impose, the central couple refuse to fit.
The power dynamic seems at first obvious, with Hans the very model of Euro male privilege. He’s busy with a mistress as well as a wife, and before he sips his high-octane Korn, or quotes his hero Bertolt Brecht, he’s got to pick tobacco off his tongue. He’s fully aware of the envious glances he draws, in company with such a “ravishing” young thing, and he’s the one to suggest bondage, to bring the riding crop. When Katharina gets her first apartment, he stocks the library with figures ranging from Bach, Beethoven, and Giotto to Goya, Thomas Mann, and even Marx. A sumptuous assortment, but it drips testosterone. Nevertheless, the new place ends up being one of the ways the young woman asserts, in fits and starts, a growing independence.
When Hans queues up Mozart’s Requiem, Katharina makes a knowing wisecrack. Her response to the news of his other women is likewise “really smart,” if startling in its generosity: “all that matters is the time that we get to spend together.” The older man has the passport, a rare prize in the Soviet bloc, but it’s the young woman who is so often getting out of Berlin. Visiting family in Cologne, she swiftly perceives the pros and cons of capitalism, the discount-shopping alongside the homeless. Slipping away to a Baltic resort, a vacation spot for Hans and his family, she lures him, surreptitiously, to the nude beach. Before long, she wins a theater apprenticeship over on the Polish border, where she works long into the night with other gifted and energetic young folk.
Small wonder that Hans, alone in his rooms, finds himself bellowing the girl’s name aloud. His mistress drifts away, he hardly gives her a second thought, and he grows careless with his wife Ingrid as well—she discovers what’s going on. Such betrayals and reversals might seem like more than enough story, and the average American divorce novel would end there, but in Kairos the troubles I’ve just described take up hardly half the narrative, or what Erpenbeck labels “Box I.” At this midpoint, Katharina has already begun to kick up a fuss, and if the man’s loss of control provides the first half’s plot, the woman’s growing self-determination—along with Hans’s flailing, shocking efforts to stop her—defines what’s going on in “Box II.”
Those paired labels, we learn at the novel’s end, refer to the storage units for old East German police documents. Research in those yellowing files turns up, years after the affair’s end, its ugliest secrets. I can’t reveal the details, of course, but I can say that the discovery is Katharina’s, Hans by then having “his desk under the earth,” and it’s as if the imp of unexpected fortune performs a breathtaking final somersault. The trick reveals that the lovers carried on within a kind of cage, “[a]s though unhappiness were the costume of time.” Indeed, before the full-grown Katharina opens those boxes, her younger self looks worse and worse over the novel’s second act. She and Hans each find fresh ways to hurt the other, as well as anyone else who gets too close. Hans seems more of a monster, his greater sophistication enabling nasty ploys, but after all, he’s also the more desperate: the old guy, left without his lifelong support structures once the Wall comes down.
In his head, Hans keeps turning over a grim phrase from his reading (it sounds like Brecht): “Be young, say the dead.” For that challenge, that threat, he can see no better embodiment than Katharina. When they first met, she was ripe for debasing: Erpenbeck sees deeply into the insecurities of a such a girl, bright enough to wonder if she has nothing going for her except her looks. But over two or three years of l’amour fou, the young woman’s wits have grown sharper, and now she comes, if haltingly, into her own power, and so provides essential relief amid the dirty-for-dirty of the novel’s second act.
Finding her way in the new Germany is in part a practical matter, requiring that she take on the market-driven mindset of the West. Many an Ossi fell victim, one way or another, to the transitions of 1989 and ’90, between the collapse of East German institutions and the steep rise in the cost of living. The fall of the Iron Curtain is commonly viewed as a triumph for humanity, yet for many in Erpenbeck’s old neighborhood, it ushered in hard times. This irony has been a feature in all her fiction—it had a special pertinence in Go, Went, Gone—and in this novel, the painful choices of those years take up more and more of Box II. “The gap between the [East and West] legal systems,” Katharina realizes, “is anarchy.” As for Hans, he may try to lord it over his young lover, but by the measure of his changing world, he’s an utter loser. The man’s status and income depended on state-run publishers and broadcasters; now, as “Coca-Cola has succeeded […] Marxist philosophy,” even his books are destined for the trash heap of history.
In this busy, tragic context, while the latter half of Kairos depends on the dismal repetitions of a sick relationship, it never falls into the dreary repetitions of ill-conceived drama. Erpenbeck keeps dreaming up developments you never see coming, whether a sweet one like the lovers’ trip to Moscow or a ghastly one like a late and bloody abortion. Then, too, there’s Katharina’s passionate trysts with a woman, Rosa. Again, the sex is explicit but confined to select details, amatory flares, and though Hans and Rosa know of each other, the three lovers never get together; the novel has no truck with male fantasy. Even as the two young women grapple across the floor, both are aware of the momentous events going on around them: “A couple of streets away is the all-night border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse.”
Across that border, whom will these people become? Another of the book’s motifs is the East German national anthem, which by the end fades into silliness. Both Hans and Katharina, however, acknowledge the composer Hanns Eisler as a master. He worked closely with the best talents of his time and place, in particular Brecht. Then shouldn’t such an artistic landmark, whether a composition or its composer, offer something to steer by, even when its original framework is gone, just as contemporary Berlin is still shaped around the broken pieces of its Wall? “[H]ow much time,” Hans wonders, “have the living got to deal with truth before being consumed by it?” The truth of history consumes everyone sooner or later, them and their homelands as well; those are the rules. But an artist like Jenny Erpenbeck can at least flaunt the rules, offering a hot transgressive kiss—a landmark like Kairos.
John Domini has appeared a number of times in Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest book is the memoir The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father & Myself (2021). See www.johndomini.com.
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