In Booker-winning Kairos, Jenny Erpenbeck offers an East German perspective

Despite being tipped for a Nobel Prize in literature and receiving worldwide acclaim, Erpenbeck is relatively unknown in her home country of Germany.

Published : May 22, 2024 17:33 IST - 5 MINS READ

Renowned outside Germany, Jenny Erpenbeck has not garnered the same acclaim at home.

Renowned outside Germany, Jenny Erpenbeck has not garnered the same acclaim at home. | Photo Credit: picture alliance/dpa

Ask your average German about Jenny Erpenbeck, and they may very well respond, “Jenny who?” Yet the contemporary German author has made a name for herself beyond Germany’s borders; she’s showered with prizes and has even been predicted to one day win the Nobel Prize in literature. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and she has read to thrilled audiences in Uzbekistan, Mexico, and India during her global book tours.

So why the discrepancy? It is not as if Erpenbeck is totally unknown in Germany—quite the contrary. She has a loyal readership, and she can usually count on one literary prize a year, earning her media mentions.

Her 2021 novel, Kairos, has also received different awards—just no major German ones, like the German Book Prize or the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Yet, in keeping with the pattern, the novel’s English translation has garnered acclaim beyond Germany’s borders, earning her, and her translator Michael Hofmann, the prestigious International Booker Prize.

‘East German’ problems

Perhaps there is something to Erpenbeck’s feeling that the wall that once separated East and West Germany never really fell, that West German cultural perspectives continue to dominate public discourse.

Erpenbeck is from the former East Germany. Born in East Berlin in 1967, she was 22 when the Berlin Wall came down. The state in which she had grown up, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), simply ceased to exist shortly thereafter, and she found herself in a new country, the Federal Republic of Germany, which was not really interested in the history of the GDR.

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Kairos addresses the end of the GDR. In an interview with the German weekly magazine Die Zeit, Erpenbeck said it was no coincidence that the novel did not garner much attention within Germany, since not a single East German-born individual sat on the juries of the major German book prizes the year the novel came out. “I’m not interested in your problems either,” she said in the interview with the Hamburg-based publication, whose roots lie in West Germany.

End of the world as we know it

Kairos is about life’s turmoil. It is a toxic love story set during the final days of the GDR. The lovers: a young woman and a man 34 years her senior—a former fascist in Nazi Germany turned zealous communist. It is also the story of artists in the GDR: a state with omnipresent censorship that required critique to be subtle and well-hidden.

Kairos tells of people experiencing the transition from a communist-socialist regime to a free-market state, an earthquake that fundamentally shakes how they see themselves. The lovers’ breakup captures the instability they face as their world crumbles.

Erpenbeck powerfully captures the end of the GDR; she knows what it felt like. In a 2018 essay for the German women’s magazine Emma, she wrote: “Freedom wasn’t gifted. It had a price, and the price was my previous life. The price was that which had just been called the present now was called the past [...] From here on out, my childhold belonged in a museum.”

Writing is a family tradition

Before she turned to writing, Erpenbeck first trained as a bookbinder. She then worked as a theater props manager before studying theater and musical theatre direction. Yet it would be the page, not the stage, that called her.

Writing was part of her family’s history: two of her grandparents were writers, and her father, John, a physicist, also published multiple books.

Erpenbeck made her writing debut in 1999 with Geschichte vom alten Kind, known in English as The Old Child (translated by Susan Bernofsky in 2005). The novella is about a girl found in the street, who seems to have no background or memory. The story was seen by many as an allegory of the disorientation GDR citizens experienced after their state ceased to exist.

Nothing lasts forever

Impermanence is a recurring theme throughout Erpenbeck’s works. For instance, in her 2008 novel Visitation (translated by Bernofsky in 2011), the inhabitants of one house experience multiple upheavals: the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, World War II, the GDR, the transition to democracy, and the period after.

Her 2015 bestseller Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone), about the hopeless situation of asylum-seekers in Berlin, was shortlisted for the year’s German Book Prize; the 2017 English translation by Bernofsky was longlisted for the 2018 International Booker Prize.

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Erpenbeck and Bernofsky won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize—the forerunner to the International Booker Prize—in 2015 for The End of Days, the English translation of Aller Tage Abend, a novel that asks what the life of a girl might have been like had she not died in infancy.

Good timing for Kairos

Erpenbeck becomes the first German author to win the International Booker Prize. The prestigious annual British award, which recognizes a work of fiction translated into English, was announced in London on May 21. The winning author-translator duo receives £50,000 (€58,000/$63,000). The other 2024 shortlisted author nominees were Ia Genberg (Sweden), Selva Almada (Argentina), Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), Jente Posthuma (Netherlands), and Itamar Vieira Junior (Brazil).

Kairos is the first translation of Erpenbeck by the established German-English translator Michael Hofmann, and the first translation from German to win the Booker Prize. The book’s title comes from ancient Greek and refers to the god of opportunity and luck—of things coming at the right moment. It appears to have been a good omen for Erpenbeck.

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