The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

A child is born during a very cold winter in early 20th century Germany. Her parents, a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, are not in the best of marriages. He is unable to rise above the 11th salary rank at work due to prejudice against his Jewish wife. She has been declared dead by her monied grandfather who actually sat shiva for her because she married a Christian. When their baby daughter becomes ill, neither of them knows the trick of putting snow on her chest to shock her back into breathing. The baby girl, Nora dies during her first weeks of life.

But what if they had known to put snow on her chest? In The End of Days Jenny Erpenbeck examines this idea by telling the story of Nora had she survived childhood. The novel follows Nora as she goes through many lives living a little longer in each. To escape rising Nazism in Germany she goes south to Vienna in one life, then east to apply for citizenship in the Soviet Union in another. In one life she dies at the height of her success, a hero to the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. In another she outlives that nation to die alone in a home for the elderly the day after her 90th birthday.

There is much to meditate over the nature of life and fate in The End of Days but it was the lives of the characters that touched me most. The mother and father and their marriage which falls apart after the death of baby Nora. The younger sister who kept Nora’s diary secret from everyone for years, even after Nora abandoned her family, only to drop the book in the snow on her way into Auschwitz; the son who takes care of Nora’s estate after she dies a successful Soviet writer and finds the secrets she kept from him for decades in a letter Nora wrote her mother that came back marked deported to the east; a random old man who visits Nora in the home almost daily looking for his wife, having lost the memory of her death years ago. Ms. Erpenbeck writes all of these without emotion. Her prose, even in translation, is often eloquent but she never pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The lives her character lives out do not seem out of the ordinary, but they haunt this reader none-the-less.

I think one could read this book as a history of 20th century Europe, eastern Europe in any case. The portrayal of life in pre-war Vienna, post war East Germany and the Soviet Union are all a part of the reason why I have enjoyed so much of Ms. Erpenbeck’s work. Living in a nation that was born and died in a single human lifetime, like Ms. Erpenbeck has done, makes for a unique point of view. The multiple lives of Nora could be seen as multiple lives of a nation. Whatever heights the German Democratic Republic reached it ended its life as a lonely old man looking for people who have long since died.

I’ve made this sound like a very heavy read for a 238-page book. The End of Days is a heavy read, but it’s also a bracing story. Once I was into it and understood what was going on, I was hooked. I read the last 100 or so pages in a single sitting, not exactly gripped in page turner fasion, but certainly caught up in a story whose ending I was anxious to discover.

For that reason, The End of Days is my new favorite book.

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