The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky, (New Directions), 256 pages, released November 11, 2014
I’m glad I managed to get Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days read before the end of the year because it definitely belongs on my 2014 “Best Of” list.
The End of Days is powerfully built. The structure is original; the scope is broad. If I had to say what it’s about, I’d have to give three answers:
1. It’s a sequence of five “novels,” each a life story of the same woman. With a few events changed, the course of her life expands. In the first “novel” of this novel, she dies as an infant of what is most probably Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. By the time the reader reaches the fifth and final “novel,” she’s lived a long life, become an acclaimed writer, and is living in an assisted care facility.
2. It’s a devastating depiction of the many waves of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 20th Century.
3. Finally, it’s an examination of the hopes behind and the subsequent betrayal of European socialism, beginning with anti-WWI pacifism, extending through much of the history of the Soviet Union, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Remarkably, The End of Days, succeeds at doing all of these without sacrificing any one of them to another.
The End of Days requires slow, careful reading. Part of this may result from the German original. I don’t know enough to say for sure, but I suspect that many of its muti-layered, multi-directional sentences are a result of the language it was originally written in. The blessing of this demanding style is that it requires one to read at a pace that allows for close attention to details.
The End of Days is the sort of novel one should read when one is ready to do some real work in reading—and to reap the rewards this work generates. None of the central character’s lives ends well, but by watching her path through each of them, we are confronted with many of the failings of the century we’ve just left behind.