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Jenny Erpenbeck, in ‘Kairos,’ tracks the political evolution of Germany through the intimacies of an ill-fated affair

Author Jenny Erpenbeckwolfgang bozic

As a high school student, I remember feeling incredibly optimistic about the revolutions cascading across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Perhaps nothing more concretely epitomized the promise of the moment than watching as joyous revelers climbed atop the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9 while thousands of East Germans streamed through the border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse.

It is conspicuous that these iconic scenes are absent from Jenny Erpenbeck’s enthralling and intricate novel about German reunification, “Kairos,” newly available in Michael Hofmann’s English translation. Much as Erpenbeck’s 2010 masterpiece “Visitation” considered the sweep of German history through a lakeside plot of land, “Kairos” tracks the East-West divide from 1986 to 1992 via the relationship of Katharina and Hans. When they meet, she is 19 and still living at home; he is 53 and married, with a 14-year-old son. Despite the dramatic difference in age and experiences — Hans was notably in the Hitler Youth long before Katharina was even born — “Kairos” argues that the merits of their relationship are not so easily adjudicated, that the West’s absorption of the territory, citizenry, and political philosophy of the East is not, perhaps, so unequivocally good.

Hans is a well-known novelist who freelances at the state-owned classical music radio station. Katharina is creative in her own right, training with a printing company when they meet, and eventually working in a theater before returning to university in the arts. They discuss these mutual interests, but Hans leads the way with an eye to the past. He discourses on Kurt Weill, Greek mythology, and Bertolt Brecht. They listen to recordings of Chopin, Bach, and Mozart, all interpreted by departed masters like Artur Rubinstein or Clara Haskil, rather than someone like Vladimir Horowitz, who was still very active in 1986, though he would die days before the Wall fell.


Erpenbeck astutely conveys the affair’s quotidian beats, though its intensity occasionally feels overblown. From their first night together, their ages color their appraisal of the future: “It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way, thinks Katharina.” After several months, cracks appear as Hans tries to maintain his marriage and Katharina moves through life as a young person. When she — in his eyes — starts to slip away and eventually falters, Hans becomes astoundingly toxic (to borrow a buzzword) and sadistically manipulative. A 53-year-old married man beginning an affair with a 19-year-old has inherent issues, but he takes it to another level. He is wounded to a degree that seems wildly disproportionate to the duration of their time together, and the intensity and thoroughness with which he attempts to break Katharina — and keep her broken — are so sophisticated and targeted that it feels clear that something else must be at play. Scenes of her being castigated via cassette tape, screeds that she has been ordered to respond to point by point though she is forbidden to transcribe his abuse, are wrenching.


Indeed, Hans does have secrets that are meted out throughout the book, though the most consequential is kept until the epilogue. Discerning the nuances of this past, however, depends on one’s familiarity with German history. Erpenbeck is not a writer who coddles her readers, starting with the coolly dispassionate narrative voice of her fiction, a studied craft that skillfully heightens emotional heft by maintaining tension between what is being conveyed and how it is conveyed. One line from “Kairos” could almost be read as a summation of Erpenbeck’s style: “Emotion was gunk that would gum up your eyes and the whole of your thinking if you didn’t watch yourself.”


“Kairos” often had me reaching for the Internet when a clearly specific reference — “that day in January” or the forced departure of 6-year-old Hans and his parents from Riga — failed to conjure its intended target. Each time I looked something up, the text was enriched by what I learned. The novel doesn’t rely on these specifics (I’m certain I missed many), but they feel important to understanding everything “Kairos” is saying.

Hofmann, who has translated Kafka and Joseph Roth, as well as contemporary work by Herta Müller and Peter Stamm, crafts some subtly lovely moments, as when the force of Katharina’s departure from a party is punched up by the inverted concluding clause in “She helps them tidy up, collapses a few garden chairs, packs up her Queen cassettes, and to her friends she says goodbye.” At other times, “Kairos” feels a bit stilted, though the overly formal tone emphasizes the importance the novel places on documentation.

When “Kairos” opens, Hans has died — on Katharina’s birthday — and she has received two boxes, containing letters and the like from their relationship, that she ostensibly sifts through while recollecting their past. The correlation between documentation and history is the novel’s ultimate concern. Does a thing, a parting, an embrace, a rebellion, matter if not recorded? How are these events, be they historic or romantic, achieved? How will their outcomes be judged, and by whom? Early on, Katharina posits that “you can only make something new after some thoroughgoing destruction,” which ultimately could apply to East Germany or herself. When Hans later recalls her statement, he wonders “What will history’s verdict be about our time?” Some questions are intentionally left unanswered, as the fall of the Berlin Wall is left off the page. Even in its silences, this fascinating novel has much to say.



By Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann

New Directions, 336 pages, $25.95

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.