cover image Kairos


Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2934-0

Erpenbeck (Go, Went, Gone) sets the dissolution of a May-December romance against the backdrop of German reunification in her solemn and subtle latest. After a former lover dies in the present day, Katharina receives two boxes of diaries, tapes, and souvenirs that chronicle their relationship from decades earlier. Erpenbeck then flashes back to 1986, when Katharina, as a 19-year-old student in East Berlin, starts an affair with Hans, a married writer. The relationship is intense, physically and emotionally, especially after she admits to a brief fling with a younger man. Now, while listening to Hans’s tapes, Katharina reckons with the depth of Hans’s sexual and psychological control over her life (“So far as I am concerned, your deception is the greatest and most critical defeat of my life,” he says to her on one of the vitriolic recordings). Their relationship is marked by the tension between beginnings and endings, love and hate, truth and deception, freedom and repression. It’s also a struggle of wills between two generations with a very different experience of the crumbling Socialist state. This audacious dissection of unruly forces demonstrates how endings are already present in every personal or political beginning, however promising. (June)