Saturday, September 10, 2016

Germany: The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck

I am trying, in my quest to read a book each from every country in the world, to find books set in that particular country, written by someone who was born and brought up there, and preferably still lives there - and then also, to skew the balance towards women writers, because it would be easy to read books written only by men. This quest is easier for some countries than others. For some, there is only one writer easily found in English (Mia Couto for Mozambique, Jose Eduardo Agualusa for Angola). For some, all the books that look promising turn out to be written by writers who were either born in America or who emigrated at a very young age, and who are writing from the experience of their parents and grandparents. Armenia for instance is a particularly difficult example - there are plenty of books written by "Armenian Americans" but to find books written by contemporary Armenians that are accessible in English seems almost impossible.

Germany, however, was not too difficult. The bonus for Jenny Erpenbeck is that she was born in East Germany which brings a different perspective to her work from that of writers who grew up in the more prosperous and democratic west. The book takes its title from a phrase that recurs in the book: "a day on which a life ends is not the end of days". It is a what if" story which gives four different versions of a woman's life. In the first she dies at eight months old. In each subsequent version, events take a different turn, so that she lives longer and her story is added to. This is unlike the usual trope of "sliding doors" stories in that each story adds to what went before, but doesn't change it - she is dead or she is not, so it is more linear than a story in which she might, say, marry this man, or go off with someone else, so that two stories continue in parallel.

It is a quiet story. The unnamed woman at the centre of the story does in the end become esteemed and famous. And there is hardship and struggle in the Soviet Union during World War II. But it is all told without a great deal of drama, and yet it is quite lovely in the way it is told. I did find the abstraction of the woman's thought patterns while she was waiting for the secret police in Russia, and writing an account of herself in her defence, somewhat tedious. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

No comments: