The End of Days (Germany)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
My only experience in Germany has been visiting Munich. I wasn’t there for its famed Oktoberfest celebrations, but had my share of steins, sausages, and pretzels. What really stood out though was a trip to the Dachau concentration camp, just outside of town. Talk about a sobering way to see a country. It seemed so small for the level of atrocities that happened there.
I’ve read a good number of books set in World War I and II. Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts remains one of the scariest books I’ve read recently. When I was looking for German book, I didn’t intend to read one about this time period. And I didn’t think the one I chose would be about these days of evil.
The End of Days, alas, is a story surrounded by war and grief. What I knew going in was it told a story about the same people in a number of ways based on the twists and turns that happen in life. I tend to like stories that play out the “what if?” scenarios we often ask ourselves so was excited to read this one.
A line from page 15 quickly let me know where I was headed: “A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
Arranged in five books, Erpenbeck shares the end of a woman’s life in five different ways. It’s done in such a unique style as the woman grow up through the entire story. An intermezzo divides each book to present the “what if?” scenario to set up the next book. From the early twentieth century in the Hapsburg Empire, to Vienna in World War I, and past the Berlin Wall, the woman struggles through life asking many questions of herself and her family. We meet her Jewish grandmother many times and her decisions are the undertone of many thoughts, actions, and heartache for the female characters.
This is a well-told, fascinating walk through history, but sometimes confusing since the same people come in and out in new ways. I had to look back a number of times to remember what story I was reading to keep up with the new narrative. This is one to read over a short period of time.
There is much acclaim for Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, about the European refugee crisis. It’s definitely on my list for later.