I suspect The End of Days is a bit of a Marmite novel: you’ll either marvel at the way Jenny Erpenbeck deftly handles the constant shifts in narrative throughout this complex novel or you’ll despair of ever keeping track. Just as Jane Smiley sets out to tell the story of an American century through the lives of one family in Some Luck, so Erpenbeck views the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.
The novel begins in Galicia in 1902 with the death of an infant, barely eight months old then follows her Jewish mother and her goy father as they try to cope with this horrible event. She takes one route, he another leading him to emigration to the US. Then it’s all change as the baby survives, moving with her family to Vienna. At seventeen, just after the war and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the daughter is alienated from her family, falling in love with her best friend’s fiancé who she hopes to claim as her own when the friend dies of Spanish influenza. Things end badly but onward we go to Moscow where our heroine is writing an account of her life, the third in a bid for Soviet citizenship. She’s married but her husband is in prison, and she’s caught up in the factions surrounding Stalin. Onward again and her teenage son is attending her funeral in East Berlin where she has been garlanded with praise and honours for her work as a writer. And finally, in 1992, she’s in a nursing home on the eve of her ninetieth birthday, her son bringing her a souvenir from Vienna as a present. She has a name, at last: Frau Hoffman
You have to have your wits about you when reading this novel. Hats off to Susan Bernofsky for her translating skills – it can’t have been easy following the many different threads or keeping track of the nameless characters. It’s divided into five books, each with a different version of events, with short ‘intermezzos’ laying the foundations for that change. By reinventing her central character, Erpenbeck explores different aspects of the century – the immigrant’s arrival at Ellis Island with its attendant humiliations, the appalling privations of the First World War and its aftermath, the factions surrounding Stalin fighting like rats in a sack, life in the GDR and the fall of the Wall. There are recurrent motifs running through the novel helping to hold it all together: an offered lemon glimpsed in a painting; a fall downstairs; a lie about a father’s disappearance and a set of Goethe’s works. Whether you appreciate The End of Days or not depends on how you feel about non-linear narrative. For me, it’s a masterly piece of work although I found myself floundering trying to unravel the various political strands of the Stalinist era – a little too esoteric unless you’re familiar with the period – or perhaps that’s the point. So there we have it – it’s the kind of book that will either make you run screaming from the room or leave you amazed at its invention and breadth of vision.