An essay by Boyd Tonkin on Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days

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

"What was I doing the night the Wall fell?"

Jenny Erpenbeck, who in November 1989 was a theatre student at Humboldt University in East Berlin, answers the question in an autobiographical essay entitled "Homesick for Sadness: A childhood in incompletion." "I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn't just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn't need pots anymore."

During an interview at her Berlin home in November 2014, at a moment when the German capital buzzed with exuberant celebrations to mark a quarter-century since the "Mauerfall," the novelist elaborated. After a night out, she woke to find news of the breakdown of the city barriers in the state media of the soon-to-be-extinct German Democratic Republic. "We thought, 'Is it true? Probably not.'" The child of two idealistic intellectuals—a philosopher and a translator, internal critics of the repressive East German regime but still true to its founding principles—Erpenbeck had grown up on the GDR side of severed streets "that all ended with a wall." That seemed perfectly natural. So did an automatic distrust of the lies in the official media. "It made you very sceptical about the system. That was our forte." Even after it became clear that East Berliners could now travel west at will, Erpenbeck chose not to exercise this suddenly-bestowed right. "I refused to be in the position of the one who was grateful."

No one who admires Erpenbeck's fiction would be surprised by her stubborn youthful reaction to an overnight demand to change minds, erase memories, and obliterate realities. Since the late 1990s, in a succession of compact, lyrical, eerie, and interrogative fictions, she has put the Grand Narratives and Great Marches of twentieth-century European history under the scrutiny of individual experience. From her primary-school playground next to "socialist" Leipziger Strasse, this child of post-war divisions could look up and see the time displayed on the illuminated clock of the Axel Springer building over in the "capitalist" West. She learnt from an early age to translate between rival systems and mentalities, and to know that both sides might mask the truth.

Walls, in the mind or on the ground, marked schisms and separations that held thanks to the firepower and ideology behind them. Yet the drive to knock them down in the service of an imposed unity could also conceal a totalitarian impulse. Erpenbeck was born in 1967. Her upbringing in the shamed and failed half of post-1945 Europe grants a special insight into the puzzles, twists, and contradictions of history. "For me, it's an experience that formed my thinking and character: to have been on the wrong or the poor side," she explained. "You get a feeling of how it is to be on the silent side or in the shadows."

Erpenbeck's fiction, which she began to publish in the late 1990s after an early career as an opera director, gives us history from that shadow side. 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. They do so through stories that in their style and vision deny, sentence by sentence, the deterministic trudge of ideologies—democratic as well as dictatorial. Consciousness, memory, and place endure, and evolve, in ways that the Great March of historical inevitability will always either brush aside or trample underfoot.

The oneiric and paranormal qualities of fable or folktale suit the quicksilver perceptions of Erpenbeck's stories better than the linear causality of social realism, or documentary chronicle. This German Gothic and fantastic strain imbues her early work. More recently, stories that take their outlines from more explicit passages of modern history nonetheless have one foot planted in the tradition of the uncanny tale. Over four books, her regular translator Susan Bernofsky has carried these attributes into English with a fusion of robustness and refinement that matches the tender resilience of Erpenbeck's heroines.


In her debut The Old Child (1999), an adult-seeming girl—the alienated heir, perhaps, of Jakob Wassermann's Caspar Hauser or Günter Grass's Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum—struggles to fit in at a school governed by an opaque code of laws. Behind her quest for conformity near a city that resembles Dresden lies deep trauma, which this exemplary parable of power, obedience, and oblivion will gradually reveal. The Book of Words (2005) takes place in a nameless Latin American country that has much in common with Argentina, although German history also intrudes. Here, another child must interpret or translate between her own experience and the secrets adults keep. In its double meanings and treacherous undersides, language itself testifies to hidden rifts in reality. Abuses of authority give silence its toxic power. Words themselves have "silent halves" that drag them down "like lead weights."

In her novel Visitation (2008), the English title—altered from the German Heimsuchung ("Homeseeking")—captures the haunted and haunting dimensions of Erpenbeck's prose. Here, a physical location acquires a kind of historical agency. From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. Both impersonal nature and human memory trace narratives of their own across this contested spot. Even Nazi genocide and the bloody arc of Communism may be translated into the immemorial rhythms of the land or the private journey of the mind through its own internal cycle of flowering and decay. In this, Erpenbeck's most Woolfian work, the mute Gardener and his annual nurturing tasks punctuate the calamities and turnarounds. History can be natural as much as social.

The End of Days, Erpenbeck's most recent novel, widens the canvas but retains the angle of vision. Over the course of a long twentieth-century life, from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to a Berlin old people's home in the post-Wall 1990s, the heroine meets death several times but declines to shake his hand. From a fragile infant's sickness in a freezing winter to the tumble downstairs that threatens an eminent Communist woman-of-letters in 1960s East Berlin, she dodges fatality, and so refashions her own history. Time and again, most dramatically when in the late 1930s a banal administrative glitch in Moscow saves the left-wing exile from Stalin's purges, the heroine gazes into "the entrance to the underworld." Then she turns away.

In her Moscow years, the protagonist works as a translator from Russian into German. The texts under her gaze reproduce the same state of homelessness, or limbo, that Erpenbeck's characters often have to navigate. "Where was a poem while it was being translated from one language to another?" she wonders during these lonely expeditions into "this no-man's-land of words."

In an age marked by deterministic belief systems and fatal necessities, the heroine has to cross her own no-man's-land. Cheating death, she comes to embody the play of contingency and accident, survival and renewal. Yet each sidestepped catastrophe opens the door to another kind of fate. Freedom and necessity entwine, intimately entangled in this narrative. Just as closely, historical forces wind around subjective experience. Erpenbeck seeks to unravel "the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature . . . can infiltrate a private face."


Throughout, collective tragedy leaves traces—imprints, perhaps—deep in mind and flesh alike. Our bodies interpret the language of events. "In other words, there is a constant translation between far outside and deep within, which no doubt explains why it's never been noticed that this is a language in the first place—and in fact, the only language valid across the world and for all time." From the anti-Semitic pogroms of Galicia to the chilled paranoia of the Purge and the bureaucratic socialism of the GDR, The End of Days traces this "constant translation" via a sequence of hypnotically compressed scenes. History might always have chosen another form of words, even down to the crumbling of the Wall in 1989, "flattened, breached, and scorned" as an entire worldview is "stamped into the ground, wiped off the map." With the demolition of the border, "an entire lifetime had been broken apart."


But ruins don't just vanish. Erpenbeck's fiction cherishes the singularity of memory, whatever judgment "History" may pass on a place or on a time. In conversation, the author was keen to distinguish this validation of a subjective past from mere "Ostalgia" for the oppressive landscapes of East Germany: "People say, you're being sentimental about the terrible GDR regime. It isn't that. It's the feeling of loss—that we lost everything, the good and the bad."

In "Homesick for Sadness," she remembers the "small-town peacefulness that made a deep impression on me as child, a sense of being at home in a closed-off and for that reason entirely safe world." Close to her home, explanatory panels and signs along Bernauer Strasse—where the Wall ran—tell parties of school-age visitors about the terror and repression of East Germany. Erpenbeck never denies any of its crimes but refuses, as does her fiction, the reduction of the past to crude triumphalist dichotomies. So what else should those school kids learn about her GDR? "For me, the main impression, when I look back, was that I felt safe . . . You could not buy so many things so you didn't need money. And the most important things—bread, butter, books, musical scores—these were very cheap." Above all, "Money was not a topic. It was not interesting."

With the Wall's opening, freedom soon presented its bill. "Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks," she recalls in "Homesick for Sadness." "A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit." Having grown up next to the physical obstacles of the Wall, with its wire and concrete, Erpenbeck witnessed a rapid historical amputation. Her past ceased to exist as a political or geographic fact: "The place where all of this took place is now as flat as a book that's been closed again." Literature, and the memory it mines, may reopen the book. In her fiction, the violent ruptures of war, tyranny, and revolution impinge on but never destroy the fluid continuities of recollection and experience.

Besides, matter as well as mind can help to safeguard the shattered past. The East Berlin of her 1970s childhood was still strewn with the uncleared rubble of the Second World War, on bombsites and battlegrounds that bore witness to catastrophe on both sides of the Wall. "As a child, I loved the ruins," she writes. "They were secret places, unoccupied places where the weeds grew as high as your knees, and where no grown-ups would follow you."


The End of Days carries an epigraph from W.G. Sebald. Although Erpenbeck was born almost a quarter-century after the self-exiled author of The Emigrants and Austerlitz, both write, consciously and exquisitely, in the pulverised aftermath of German trauma. In her case, the brief ascendancy and swift downfall of "socialism" in the GDR stands beside but never occludes the horror of the Third Reich—much as, in her childhood, the functional modernism of East Berlin arose amid the wreckage discarded by the apocalypse of 1945.

In strata of stone and fragments of memory, several different pasts coincide. As an adventurous girl, the future author "knew the bullet holes around the foundations of the Humboldt-Universität and the Staatsbibliothek and all the other grand edifices of Berlin's Mitte neighborhood, I knew at every moment what it looks like when a tree starts growing out of a roof gutter, knew what it's like to look out your window at an air-raid bunker, and knew the pale shadings of colour that made it possible to look at an old tile-covered wall and see where there used to be a bathroom, a kitchen, a pantry." For Erpenbeck "as a child, an empty space did not bear witness to a lack." Rather, "an empty space is a place for questions, not answers. What we don't know is infinite." As with Sebald, an aesthetic of the truncated, the unfinished, the spoiled, the fragmentary, unites the method of her fiction with the cataclysmic events that inform it.

Human beings crave organic growth, free choice, change that flowers from the soil of continuity and love. Across that longed-for path of liberty and security history erects its Walls, switches its creeds and languages, wields the weapons that injure, bereave, and divide. For Erpenbeck, as for many German writers raised in a century of wounds, literature has a responsibility both to measure Walls on the earth and dismantle them in the imagination. Seen from Berlin, the disjunctions of the past look especially gross and raw. But disruptive change, whether interpreted as tragedy, destiny, or revolution, will erect fences across every biography. "It takes you an entire lifetime to make sense of your own life," Erpenbeck writes. "Layer after layer, knowledge piles up atop the past, making it look again and again like a brand-new past." Every consciousness, as her fiction demonstrates, contains partitions and barriers where scar tissue will grow over the original, traumatic cut. We all live with our Walls.

"What happens to the curve of space-time," asks Erpenbeck, "when a wall collapses, when a ceiling crashes to the floor?" Her work addresses history as a discontinuous field of ruins, but also as a space where memory and love can span the deepest abyss. After our meeting, Erpenbeck drove me to an old apartment block on Chaussee Strasse—another Wall-bisected street—where the dissident singer and playwright Wolf Biermann lived. In the 1960s and 1970s, he inspired a heretical circle of artists who sought liberation beyond as much as against the barriers set up by state ideology. Outside, the gentrified Mitte glitters with new money and smart prospects. Within, something of the shabby GDR survives. We walk through the scruffy inner courtyard and into a brown, dark stairwell. Mere metres from the Wall, songs of love and freedom echoed here. She stops for a moment, and says: "In its own way, it's beautiful."

With thanks to Jenny Erpenbeck for permission to quote from "Homesick for Sadness: A childhood in incompletion" (translated by Susan Bernofsky).