Tuesday, 26 August 2014

'Aller Tage Abend' ('The End of Days') by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

Having already tried a book in French for Women in Translation Month, it was inevitable that I was going to get to something in German as well.  In fact, I had two books to choose from, and I was planning to go for one by an author I hadn't tried before.  However, in the end I opted for the book I'm reviewing today.  Why?  Well, quite apart from the reputation of the writer, I wanted to talk about a book that the non-German speakers among you will soon have the chance to read too.  Now that I've got your attention...

Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) is an excellent novel spanning the majority of the twentieth century.  We start off in Galicia, now the Poland-Ukraine border region, but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a couple are mourning the death of their young daughter.  The tragic loss of the infant has a devastating effect on the whole family, with the father unable to stay and console his wife - leaving her to support herself by what we can euphemistically call 'other means'.  But what if...

...the child never died at all?  Having spun out her tale, the writer then drags us all back in time, imagining an alternate history in which the baby is saved from death.  And, of course, with the daughter still alive, the fate of the parents and other family members also changes, whether for better or for worse.  Resurrect the baby/girl/woman four times, and that's what you can expect from Erpenbeck's latest work :)

It's a fascinating book and a very clever idea, a novel built around the central concept of Was wäre wenn... ('What if...').  Aller Tage Abend consists of five different books, each set in a different period.  The five sections look at different times in the central character's life (her name is fairly unimportant and only really appears towards the end of the novel), although it's probably more accurate to say that they deal primarily with her death.  With that subject matter in mind, you can imagine that the story has some rather powerful scenes.

Between the five books are four 'Intermezzos', and it's here that time is rewound.  As the central character's grandmother notes:
"Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller tage Abend."
p.23 (BtB, 2014)

"She has known for a good while what her daughter will have to learn overnight: the end of a day where someone dies is by no means the end of all days." *** (my translation)
While the grandmother's words are more in the vein of 'life goes on', in Erpenbeck's world they are taken more literally.  We go back and see how other decisions could have been made.  One change of heart, one wrong turn, a file moved to the right instead of the left - and suddenly life really does go on.  Think of the film Sliding Doors, and you'll begin to get the idea.

While a few themes are evident, particularly the role of women in the twentieth century and the problems of European Jews, Aller Tage Abend is not really focused on any particular area, moving straight from the micro of a personal tragedy to the macro of universality.  The book seems to hinge on the fate of one person, showing how things would have been different with and without her.  However, the more we read, the more we get the feeling that individuals aren't really that important. History moves on, countries come and go; are people really that important?  Life always goes on, even if it's not yours...

The book is actually less about one woman at five different times than about five completely different people.  Erpenbeck shows that our life is not a continuum, a flowing stream of life ending in death, but a series of small, potential deaths:
"Zu vielen Zeiten ihres Lebens hat sie irgend etwas für immer zum letzten Mal gemacht, ohne zu wissen, dass es das letzte Mal sein würde.  Also war der Tod gar kein Augenblick, sondern eine Front, lebenslang?" (p.226) 

"At many times in her life, she had done something for the very last time, without actually knowing that it would be the last time.  Did that mean, then, that death wasn't a moment, but a continual, lifelong struggle?" ***
Each day, while connected to the one before, is a brand new day, another twenty-four hours of struggle against the possibility of death.

The observant reader will probably be connecting Aller Tage Abend with another of Erpenbeck's novels, Heimsuchung (Visitation).  Of course, the structure is similar, and the two books could almost be read as companion pieces.  In one, we see history rooted to the spot; in the other, it moves around in the form of the woman.  For me, though, Aller Tage Abend is a much more successful book.  Its five sections (plus the Intermezzos) worked much better than the dozen or so parts of Heimsuchung, and each book is very different (monologue, diary entries, narration).  Death sometimes ends the section, but occasionally begins it too.  While I wasn't a big fan of the first part's detached style, I was enthralled by what came after.

I'm very glad that I decided to choose this one out of the two I bought especially for Women in Translation Month, and (as noted in my introduction) soon you can get your hands on it too!  The English translation is out on the 1st of November, courtesy of New Directions (and Susan Bernofsky), and the English title is The End of Days.  So, get yourself a copy, and you too can enjoy another great translated novel by a female writer :)

No need to thank me, just doing my job ;)