Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was published one year before Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, but it wasn’t published in English until 2014. The two are inevitably going to be compared to each other because they so similar in content and style. Both novels tell the stories of how the arc of a life depends on chance events. The protagonists of both books are born or not-born, live, and die over and over according to the vagaries of day-to-day life. The End of Days, however, is a much more elusive novel. The protagonist is only known as Comrade H. or Frau Hoffman and we don’t learn nearly as much about her as we learn about Ursula Todd, the protagonists of Life After Life. Comrade H.’s story and the story of the twentieth century mirror each other, like Ursula’s was, but written in such a way that H.’s story could have the story of any woman born at the beginning of the century and lived through decades of European upheaval.
We later learn that H. was born in Brody, a small town in Galicia in 1902, but when we are actually introduced she is an eight-month-old infant who has just succumbed to SIDS. Her death breaks up her mother’s family. As her mother sits shiva for H., H.’s father disappears and goes to America. If H. had lived, as she does in Books II through V of The End of Days, the family ends up moving to Vienna after a second daughter is born. H.’s grandmother eventually follows. Book II, however, ends in early death after H. has her heart broken by a World War I veteran. Book III tells H.’s story if she had lived past 1919. She marries another Comrade H. after joining the Austrian Communist Party and the two move to Moscow in 1935. Unfortunately, they get caught up in the Purges and H. dies in a gulag without ever finding out what happened to her husband. Book IV is H.’s story if she survived her Moscow years. She becomes a cultural hero by writing plays and moves to East Berlin. In this version of her life, she dies after slipping on the stairs at her home. H.’s life continues the longest in Book V. In Book V, she survives the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to succumb to old age (and possibly Alzheimer’s) on her ninetieth birthday. Sections called intermezzos between the Books reveal how H.’s life will take a different turn in the next book.
These are the bones of the plot of The End of Days, but one has to pick them up out of a welter of unmarked dialogue and mostly unnamed characters. Repetition of images or phrases in Yiddish follow H. and help us keep track of the various lives H. might have lived. Unlike Ursula from Life After Life, H. never really became real to me because there is always a huge distance between what is literally happening and how the narration describes it. Some readers are going to have a hard time with Erpenbeck’s style. The distance did help me look at H.’s story as the story of Eastern Europeans between 1902 and 1992. H.’s life spans the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up through the end of the communism. She’s Jewish and Catholic, occasionally communist. As a writer, H. spends a lot of time thinking about the mutability of words.
Because H. is a writer, The End of Days is also about how words change meaning—and reality—over time. At one point, as H. is trying to write another autobiography to gain admittance to the Soviet Communist Party (Book III), she thinks:
Had the time so quickly come to an end when words themselves were reality, just as real as a bag of flour, a pair of shoes, or a crowd being stirred to revolt? Was it the case now that reality itself consisted of words? Whose eyes would piece together the letters she was writing into words, and the words into meaning? What would be called her guilt, her innocence? Did every word matter? What are bones? (Location 2113*)
H. was born before demagogues like Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin and their rhetoric turned light into dark, right into left, and so on. By the 1920s, words have the power to end a life or spare a life. The words in documents are more real than the life H. lived in Moscow. Later, after H. is sent to the gulag and dies in the winter of 1941, the narrator says:
Many years ago one person said a word, and then another said another word, words moved the air, words were written down on paper with ink and clipped into binders. Air was balanced out with air, and ink with ink. 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, just as real as the sound with which the frozen bones of Comrade H. slide down into a pit in the winter of ’41, sounding like someone tossing wooden domino tiles back into their box. When it’s cold enough, something that was once made of flesh and blood can sound just like wood. (Location 2386)
It’s passages like this that kept me reading The End of Days, because the style isn’t quite to my taste. (I prefer books that are more grounded in the literal.) The narrator, especially in the middle of the novel, has a way of moving between the metaphorical and the symbolic to the literal and back again. This particular passage, about H.’s burial, floored me. I had to pause when I read it and let the imagery wash over me.
Though The End of Days will be compared to Life After Life, the experiences of reading them are very different. The language of The End of Days is more powerful. I was moved by Life After Life, but I don’t recall being wrecked by the way Atkinson wrote. Life After Life is for readers who like to ponder what if. The End of Days is for readers who are curious about how we are able to wonder what if at all.
* Quotes are from the 2014 kindle edition by New Directions. Page numbers were not available.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe to readers who are too stuck in the day-to-day, who need to look at the larger picture. Also useful for readers who want to stop seeing the world in black and white.