[New Directions; 2023]
Tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann
At the center of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Kairos, are a volatile relationship and a declining country. Hans and Katharina meet on a bus in 1980s East Berlin. He is fifty-something and married; she is nineteen. After three weeks of sex, secret meetings, and exchanged notes, they return to the bus stop “to rehearse the choreography of their shared history, as though to imprint it on their memories for always.” As soon as their relationship begins, they mythologize—to the point of fetishizing—their first encounter: Their eyes met across a busy bus, they disembarked at the same stop, he followed her to the Hungarian Cultural Center and invited her for a coffee. Erpenbeck demonstrates that relationships can be like countries where an idealistic beginning is retold in spite of troubling signs or fault lines.
Hans understands that beginnings are prone to endings. When he was younger, he thought that “the ending carries a seed of the beginning, [but now thinks it’s] the other way around.” Katharina is young and will leave him eventually, yet he can’t resist getting involved with this “girl.” Katharina’s attraction for Hans is partly intellectual (he is a writer, a freelance radio broadcaster, and very familiar with East German philosophers, thinkers, and writers) and partly physical (he is also a serial womanizer). But as Hans predicts, the blissful first phase fades about halfway through the novel when he learns Katharina has slept with someone her own age. Does it matter if a betrayal is predicted? Hans hurts the same, transforming how he sees Katharina, from an innocent “girl” to someone complicated in her own right.
Thankfully, we do not only have Hans’s side of this relationship. Kairos is told from a dual close third narration in the present tense that moves swiftly and seamlessly between the two points of view. The narrator is also fluid with tense and is sometimes fragmented, sometimes long-winded, expounding on history or politics, or making one blush with its voyeuristic sex scenes. As James Woods writes in his review of Erpenbeck’s previous novel Go, Went, Gone, “the reader learns to approach her fiction . . . with the same patience she herself deploys.” In Kairos, the central relationship between Katharina and Hans fills out what is in some ways a more traditional plot than her previous novels—a doomed love affair. Yet like in her previous books, Hans and Katharina are geographically and politically situated, layered with a story of a country that ceases to exist.
The parallels that Erpenbeck draws between Hans and Katharina’s relationship and that of the East German citizen and the State are not a perfect match but resemble more of a shadowy mirror. Erpenbeck is less intent on describing the messy politics of how the GDR ended and more interested in the lived reality of being a citizen of a country that disappeared when the Wall fell. In the weeks after the fall, Katharina feels a mournful displacement, wondering at how a country could become another in the span of a few weeks. Inversely, when Katharina and Hans begin to fall apart, Katharina strives to keep them together. After Katharina’s betrayal, Hans sends her cassette recordings that detail everything Katharina did wrong, which she listens to like a schoolgirl, taking notes about her own awfulness. The worst parts about these scenes are Hans’s hypocrisy—he sees no problem with maintaining two relationships, one with Katharina and one with his wife—and his inability to understand that Katharina was lonely because he was spending more time with his family. It is no surprise that Hans excels at control and power. Like the arc of the GDR, what began with love, idealism, and hope ends with hypocrisy, sordidness, and tyranny.
In an interview on Between the Covers about Erpenbeck’s previous book, Not a Novel, the interviewer asked about the author’s curiosity in whether “static memory is used as an instrument of power.” In response, Erpenbeck discussed the experience of growing up in the GDR among ruins and construction, past and future, and how the place she called home evaporated when the Wall fell. She said, “it was a strong experience to see how something that you believe is stable . . . is lost from one week to the next.” Stability, in other words, can be believed in or not. This idea is found in the mythology Hans and Katharina tell themselves about their beginning. Kairos, as explained in the prologue, is “the god of fortunate moments . . . [who] ha[s] a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him.” In the prologue, Katharina learns of Hans’s death and honors him by listening to the music he loved. She wonders, “was it a fortunate moment then, when she, just nineteen, first met Hans?”
Katharina seems to ask the same question about the founding of her country as she travels from East to West without a visa or stopping at a checkpoint. She is disturbed at how the quick adoption of capitalism ironed out the particularities of her country. On returning home after a trip away, she thinks “Coca-Cola has succeeded where Marxist philosophy has failed, at uniting the proletarians of all nations under its banner. Home?” She asks herself, “was it a fortunate moment then” when the GDR formed? As a young man, Hans moved from West to East to be a part of the hopeful eradication of fascism, filled with the excitement of a beginning. And even at the end of their relationship, if Katharina was at times tyrannized by Hans, she misses him once he’s gone. The answer isn’t an easy yes/no, but Erpenbeck seems to suggest that it is better to have hoped and failed than to never have hoped at all. With Kairos, Erpenbeck proves the impossibility, irresponsibility even, of an easy binary and reminds us that the only thing we can be certain of is an ending that will bring along change.
Amber Ruth Paulen is a writer and educator living in rural Michigan. She earned her MFA in fiction at Columbia University and is currently writing a multi-generational novel-in-stories about the struggles to keep one family farm running and the costs of an inheritance.
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