After the Fall

Kairos By Jenny Erpenbeck, Translated from German by Michael Hofmann. New York: New Directions. 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Kairos

IT WAS THE FALL of the Berlin Wall that prompted Jenny Erpenbeck to become a writer, as if the beliefs and structures guiding her life that had, almost overnight, been rendered obsolete, could be recuperated by language. But Erpenbeck, born steps from the Wall in 1967, wasn’t interested in memoir or commemoration. She preferred tricks of self-effacement, recursion, deferral, anything that lent “freedom from the compulsion of realism.” Her debut, The Old Child (1999), is a parable of a loser’s triumph: a young woman posing as a fourteen-year-old goes to live in a children’s home, turning life into a game she can win by changing the rules. Her second novel, The Book of Words (2004), is another childhood phantasmagoria, loosely set in the Nazi haven of Argentina. Then Erpenbeck shakes herself out of the timelessness of fairy tale. The title of her third novel is, in English, Visitation; in German, Heimsuchung, a word as shifty as her plots—it sounds like “home-seeking” but means both “affliction” and “haunting.” An unnamed gardener tends to a Brandenberg estate and serves as witness to the five self-standing but interconnected stories of its occupants. 

With Kairos, her sixth novel, Erpenbeck comes home. A love story edging on cultural history, Kairos etches the arc of a May-December romance through the final gasps and dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Consider it the most personal register in a continuous project. Erpenbeck’s great subject, the lives of Germans in the crosscurrents of the twentieth century, has before now been marked by an austere remove. History supplied the mood, but served mainly as a stage. (It may be worth noting that Erpenbeck worked in theater design and as an opera director). In Kairos, it orchestrates the narrative. Here Erpenbeck climbs in between the reality of things, mapping the subterranean affect of the GDR through its humor, speech, customs, gestures. The picture that emerges is that of a vanished system, a code of sentiment and behavior no longer in use, intact but unserviceable. 

The lovers’ story is deceptively familiar. One day by chance, on the bus, she sees him and he sees her; then she looks at him and he looks at her, and by the third look, that’s it, it’s over, everything has begun. This is in July 1986, and they are Hans and Katarina. Hans, fifty-three, is a married man, a writer, and a casual sadist. Katharina, nineteen, is “artistic,” disarming, her openness a liability. In the restaurant, she takes her coffee black, so he’ll take her seriously; he orders a glass of vodka, to distract himself from her age.

When they meet again, she accepts his terms for the affair—the infrequency of their meetings, the need for secrecy, his freedom to see other women—with a smile. If I demand nothing, she thinks, he can’t refuse me anything. He provides little assurance about their romantic future but compensates by giving her bits and pieces of fine culture to furnish a sense of self-assurance. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Caspar Neher’s designs. Giotto, Goya. Mann, Marx. It’s not all intellectual; he also uses his belt. 

A year in, Katharina begins a theater internship in Frankfurt, and a life away from Hans. He plays Iago to his own Othello, anticipatorily foisting blame in a way that guarantees the outcome he suspects. She takes up with a colleague her own age. Hans’s devastation has an undercurrent of glee. “Everything regarding your time in Frankfurt,” he tells her, “is material for my investigation.” For the next three years he records cassettes with hateful dispatches that take thwarted lover to an operatic pitch. (“You’re smart . . . but you’re soulless.” “You took sentimentality for passion.” “You regret the consequences, but not the fact that you lacked moral discipline.”) One uniformed Stasi officer to every 320 people, the famous calculation went, or just one man in the bedroom. 

Post-Frankfurt is an extended romantic finale. On a parallel track, the end of the socialist world. The Wall falls without mention (“It’s salade niçoise forever, now,” Hans and Katharina joke), and what’s left is a society for whom life suddenly makes no sense. The West is the smell of Chanel No. 5 in the streets, strangers with strange money in their pockets. “Coca-Cola,” Katharina thinks, “has succeeded, where Marxist philosophy has failed, at uniting the proletarians of all nations under its banner.” (Godard agrees.) There’s endless talk of freedom—the freedom to shop, mostly. “Am I lacking in dignity,” Katharina’s friend Sybille asks, “just because I fancy an unusual-looking pair of shoes?” (“Yes, thinks Katharina.”) The glut of things hardly conceals the erosion of beliefs. 

Hans and Katharina are symbolically overweighted characters, but I forgive Erpenbeck her ciphers. Her heavy-handedness makes clear distinct experiences in the GDR. Hans, born in the West, wore the uniform of the Hitler Youth, but refused the Fascism of the father, his own, becoming a disciple of Brecht and moving to East Berlin at eighteen “to prove to himself and to mankind that he would have behaved differently.” Katharina, born in the East, where as a schoolgirl she memorized Lenin slogans and Marxist doctrine, knows no other life. The mechanisms of the GDR don’t preclude private feeling. Hans’s insistent castigation of Katharina, following her “betrayal” in Frankfurt, is culturally normal and physically pathological, analogous to the techniques of surveillance and control of the state. 

After Hans’s death, Katharina receives boxes of government documents—the Stasi files—and learns that he had, prior to their meeting, been an informant for the state. He used the code name “Galileo,” as in the Brecht play, where the character recants his beliefs to get on with his work. I met the news of the reveal with blankness. The truth here could never stand up for itself. 

Stasi surveillance equipment, DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany, 2013. Adam Jones, Ph.D./Wikicommons
Stasi surveillance equipment, DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany, 2013. Adam Jones, Ph.D./Wikicommons

KATHARINA, IN THE FINAL PAGES, opens her kitchen cupboard to reveal to Hans a store of products that will soon be taken out of commission: the cleaning product Pulax; a detergent called “Spee,” the baby food “All Weeks and Months,” toothpaste, milk powder, tea, Ems salt. Backstolz baking powder. A brown paper shopping bag printed with pale letters, Goodbye, good buy! She calls the arrangement “GDR Last Things.” Things that were not made to last, now made to be lasting. 

“I had this idea,” Erpenbeck told Claire Messud, of Kairos, “of making a museum by writing a book.” It would include, she continued, the things she remembered and things important to her friends. And in a sense, the book does serve as a museum, enclosing a historical period in firmly planted parentheses. But museums are coercive little architectures. Not without merit. They position us outside of history, and in doing so, we gain a certain objectivity with respect to ourselves, and see how much generality there is even in the most personal things, and this generality has a quality of intimacy. But novels, our homes of inner turbulence, are not museums, smoothing and tidying, “clarifying” at the expense of contradiction, pining historical moments as “foreign” and “peculiar.” Kairos captures a moment when history curtailed gesture, adventures of the heart. Erpenbeck’s task is the attempt to make sense of a perished code of behavior.

In The Sense of an Ending, his influential study on making sense of fiction, or of attempting to derive sense of temporal chaos, the literary critic Frank Kermode positions kairos as a “point in time filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end.” This definition seems to me more apt than Erpenbeck’s summon of the elusive Greek god Kairos, with “the lock of hair on his forehead,” when Katarina asks herself, thirty years later, whether it had been a “fortunate moment” when she “just nineteen, had met Hans.” Too religious still, or class-conscious and superstitious maybe, to fully separate “fortune” from “fate,” I found it relieving to revisit kairos in the biblical sense, as the “concord of past, present and future . . . the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future.” It seems truer to the novel, truer than a museum, for the title to mark not fortune but destiny, or a story not defined only by its end, but by the panorama of time around which it situates itself. Pinpricked by the specifics, like seeing a face in a crowd. 

Erpenbeck renders the seismic shift created by the Fall by inferring a general pathology from the depth and breadth of Hans’s and Katarina’s subjectivity. And from their liaison: Kairos gains its emotional voltage from the individuating force of love, with all of its indelible precision and detail. Written in the third person, with the perspective alternating between the two characters, the novel’s most beautiful passages occur in the direct shifts between the lovers. 

At times these highlight the symmetry of pleasure:

The room smells of lilacs.

Later, they lie so close that when one turns, the other turns too.

So it does exist, she thinks, happiness.

So it does exist, he thinks, happiness.

While other times the alternating voices reveals the projections, delusions, and mismeasures of love:

He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.

And she, he’s putting himself in my hands.

And then the ruthless symmetry of endings:

Nothing was dearer to Rumpelstiltskin’s heart than to have some living being all to himself. 

Some living being, Hans thinks, and stares up into the blue, next to him the woman with whom he had wanted to have a child.  

Some living being, thinks Katharina, and stares up into the blue, next to her the man with whom she had wanted to have a child. 

The ruins still sit between the two cities when they go back to the Ganymede, where they’d had their first date. It’s closing—forever, one last rowdy consignment of Americans in uniform. Katharina wears the same backless dress, the same velvet hair ribbon, as before when she said yes and smiled. Then it was live musicians playing Mozart; now it’s pop music from a cassette player. Then, at the end of the night, they walked the streets towards home, pointing out this and that to one another. Now, at the end of the night, they miss the tram, hail a cab, two stops. 

Janique Vigier is a writer living in New York.