The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn't right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words: oh, Mother – she too was being slowly suffocated by the dirt falling into her mouth. Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave: a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said: oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again, in fact even a bit fuller than full, since after all the mound of earth on a grave is always round on top because of the body underneath, even if the body lies far below the surface where no one can see. The body of an infant that has died unexpectedly produces hardly any roundness at all. But really the mound ought to be as huge as the Alps, she thinks, even though she's never seen the Alps with her own eyes. (pp. 5-6)
The story of a life is a life unto its own. It can be a tale of adventure, or of missed opportunities. There are joys and tragedies in each of life's permutations and in a real sense, good fiction allows us to (re)imagine each of those possibilities as we live and endure the lives that we possess. Who hasn't ever asked herself upon learning of an untimely death "what if...?" Who hasn't wondered, perhaps aloud, what if things could be changed, what would happen next?
In her 2012 novel, The End of Days, translated this year into English by Susan Bernofsky, German writer Jenny Erpenbeck explores five different permutations of a woman's life and death. Ranging from death as an infant at the dawn of the 20th century to a woman in dotage as the Berlin Wall, The End of Days is divided into five novella-length stories that explore these questions of "what if": an infant's death affects her parents; the young woman who survives only to die in a senseless fashion; the revolutionary who makes an unfortunate choice just before the German-Soviet War; a retiree who is five minutes too early for her appearance downstairs; a woman whose fading memories overshadow a life seemingly well-lived. These capsule summaries, however, do not so much "spoil" the story as they circumscribe its outlines, allowing Erpenbeck to do so some interesting things within these short mini-narratives.
The concept of a repeating life is not a new one; last year, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life also dealt with a young woman, Ursula Todd, who would die and be reborn, (re)living the epochal 20th century. Yet Erpenbeck's book is different in certain key ways from Atkinson's intriguing novel. One important difference is in the import that the anonymous narrator's life has on events. She does not affect the course of history; she is continually shaped by events, but she herself is but that Shakespearean actress who frets her hour upon the stage and then is seen no more. Any changes that occur are minor; what we see unfold are variations on a theme, of how lives shift and shape themselves around the greater events that transpire around and through them. In each of her five lives, from the nascent to the elderly, the protagonist is a product of a troubled mixed Jewish-Christian marriage who struggles to make her way as a woman through a world in which women are often oppressed by men. While this is not a central element to any of the five substories, it is a common thread that runs through each and which provides a narrative unity that binds these five sections together cohesively.
Erpenbeck's attention to the smaller details allows her to form symbolic connections that the reader will grasp as she reads further into the novel. For example, I was struck by the way humble soil, dirt even, is utilized not just as a metaphor for death and the burial of hopes, but also with how it ties into the renewal of life. This is readily apparent not just in the passage quoted above from the beginning of the book, but also in a key scene in the third section, set in the Russian steppe during World War II. Soil is bound in frost, a necessary cold in which the seeds of too-brief lives are contained.
Erpenbeck's narrative also has a curious "distance" to it that paradoxically makes these life permutations somehow more intimate. By talking of life and hope and failures as though they too were tales to be recounted for an audience, something that might be instructive but which also has value in being an entertaining yarn in its own right, the reader's focus is concentrated more readily on the choices that the protagonist makes, which in turn allows the reader to ponder more closely questions of passivity in the face of great events and the amount of agency we might actually possess in our lives. It should also be noted that this protagonist is not a monolithic character; her views and personality shift from life to life, as she is not static, but instead is dynamically transformed by the events that she does/does not manage to avoid happening to her in the next cycle of her interrupted lives. This, too, ties back in to Erpenbeck's exploration of the limitations of human agency and it is done very well within the context of this story.
After all, as the woman's grandmother reflects in the first section after the infant version is buried:
For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (p. 15)
Through these five permutations, each presented with a clarity of prose and with great insight into personal power dynamics, Erpenbeck (aided by Bernofsky's superb translation) has composed a compact yet powerful novel that might be one of the year's best, whether in translation or originally written in English.