Shiny Prize Season – Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck – International Booker Prize

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Translated by Michael Hofmann

Review by Susan Osborne

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels offer much food for thought on the events that have shaped modern Germany. Opening in 1986, Kairos charts an affair between Hans, a successful writer born in 1933, and Katharina, born in East Berlin in 1967, the same year in which Erpenbeck herself was born.

Hans and Katharina meet by chance, both heading to the Hungarian Cultural Centre only to find it closed. Walking away into the rain, Hans turns back, asking Katharina if she would like to join him for coffee. These two find themselves caught up in a passionate affair which spans the years leading up to the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany, Hans impressing upon Katharina the need for discretion despite his wife’s tolerance of his many lovers. They meet often, each besotted with the other: Katharina impressed by her older lover’s knowledge and experience, Hans thrilled by Katharina’s youthful beauty and idealism. Katharina has known nothing but the GDR while Hans has travelled extensively, even to New York. When she takes up an internship in a theatre an hour from Berlin, he is oddly reluctant to visit her, disparaging her colleagues. Then something happens that irrevocably changes their relationship, which becomes increasingly abusive and dysfunctional. Years later, Hans’ son tells Katharina of his father’s death, sending her the many papers that form a record of their affair.

This summer evening, they’re sitting as though they’re still happy, or happy again, on holiday from their sadness, and fitting one word to another until they’ve managed a whole conversation.

Ostensibly the story of an affair between two people unable to let each other go despite the increasing harm inflicted by their relationship, Erpenbeck’s novel is an allegory which explores the history of her native country, a country that no longer exists. Thirty-six years Katharina’s senior, Hans is a child of the Nazi era, which saw his father engaging with a regime he later fled. The war has thrown a long shadow over his generation. Hans is entirely cognisant not only of the horrors of the Holocaust but of the enormity of the wartime sacrifice made by the Soviets. Katharina is looking to the future, travelling to countries she could only dream of before the Wall came down, yet unable to let go her hopes of a life with Hans. Erpenbeck’s exploration of the period through their affair is thought provoking and enlightening, the black and white with which the West painted the fall of the Wall and its aftermath rendered in more nuanced shades of grey. Threaded through with cultural erudition, it’s a novel which manages to be both visceral and cerebral, intimate and atmospheric, leaving readers with much to think about. All three of the books I’ve read by Erpenbeck have been impressive but with Kairos she’s excelled herself.

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From Susan Osborne A Life in Books ( Never, ever leave home without a book.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Kairos, transl. Michael Hofmann (Granta Books, 2023) 978-1783786121, 304pp., hardback.

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