In Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, “The End of Days,’’ words and stories and memory are the vehicle by which the reader moves, intoxicatingly and fearlessly, through a dizzying but magnificent series of terrains. Much like Kate Atkinson in “Life After Life,’’ Erpenbeck explores the ways alternative paths shape the narrative of a life.
The book is split into five sections, with intermezzos dividing them. The first part opens with the death of a baby in 1902 in Galicia, in Eastern Europe, where a mourning Jewish mother sits on the footstool she used as a child when her grandmother told her stories. Stories begin and stories end, but the mother must learn that “[a] day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
Right from the start, words are everything. The grandmother of the infant has a treasured possession — the collected works of Goethe. Her husband received it as a gift from his parents — but that was before he was brutally murdered. The mother of the dead child doesn’t know what happened to her father because her mother deliberately keeps it from her.
Everything in life has consequences — both the words we use and the words we don’t use. The life cut short leads to the father abandoning his family for America. The unnamed mother prostitutes herself. But in the intermezzo, Erpenbeck wonders: What if? What if the child had lived — how would all of the characters lives be transformed?
And so we move on to a new section, in which the child is now an adolescent living with her parents and her sister in Vienna. They are starving, despite her father having a job at the Viennese Imperial and Central Institution for Meteorology. At night he reads “Notes on Earthquakes in Syria’’ because “it describes in meticulous detail exactly the sorts of processes he is now able to see with completely different eyes: How one and the same cause can have a thousand different effects on different regions and locations.”
Each intermezzo and segment consider new twists: What if the teenager is heartbroken over a man not loving her and has a near stranger kill her in a suicide pact? But what if she actually doesn’t succumb to her adolescent despair and instead discovers while writing in her diary that she wants to be a writer? And what if that leads to her becoming Comrade H and living in Moscow with her husband, writing an account of her life before she is arrested and sent to a labor camp? What if she survives the camp and has a son with a Soviet poet and goes on to be a great, celebrated writer who even wins the Goethe Prize?
Time is played with, shaped by the author herself. “It’s a shame that no one can see the boundary where words made of air and words made of ink are transformed into something real: as real as a bag of flour, a crowd in which revolt is stirring,” Erpenbeck writes.
It’s as if Erpenbeck has written the philosophical response to “Choose Your Own Adventure,” but she decides for the readers which new path they will take. So much of “The End of Days’’ is focused on death, on those who choose it and those who don’t. But it’s also about the directions our lives take us in. “Might everything that’s ever been said and that will be said everywhere in the world constitute a living whole, growing sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another, always balancing out in the end?”
By the end of the novel, we come full circle. Sasha, the son of Comrade H (now known as Frau Hoffman), is on a trip in Vienna when he goes to an antiques store to get his mother a present. Unbeknownst to him, the very same Goethe books that are his rightful inheritance are there in the shop, but he decides not to buy them. Who knows what those once-treasured volumes will mean to the next person who owns them.