In her latest novel, Kairos (New Directions, June), German writer Jenny Erpenbeck looks at East Germany in the 1980s and ’90s through the lens of a love affair that is as complicated and fraught as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The protagonist is 19 and her lover is a married, middle-aged writer when they connect on a bus in Berlin in 1986: “The doors closed again, the bus moved off, and she felt for a handhold. And that’s when she saw him. And he saw her.”

And so it begins, as Erpenbeck puts us in both their heads: “Shall we have a coffee? And she said: Yes. That was all. Everything was underway, there was no other possibility. It was 11 July, 1986. How could he shake her off, this kid? What if someone saw them together? How old was she anyway? I’ll have my coffee black, without sugar, that way he’ll take me seriously. Some chitchat and go, he thinks. What’s her name? Katharina. And his? Hans.”

The novel opens with Katharina going through boxes of artifacts of hers and Hans that are delivered to her home after he’s died, years after the affair. “Pages that were written to deceive alongside other pages that were striving for truth,” Erpenbeck writes. “Silent fury and silent adoration together in one envelope.”

Their relationship mirrors the fate of the German Democratic Republic, with the gap in their ages giving each of them a different perspective: “She had only just been born when his first book appeared,” Erpenbeck writes. “He took his first steps under Hitler.”

The idea, Erpenbeck tells me, was to look at the connection between political and private life. “I thought I was old enough not to get involved in writing a love affair. Also, it was 2019 when I started writing, the anniversary of the wall coming down.”

Born in East Germany, Erpenbeck was 22 when the wall fell. In her 2020 essay collection Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces, she reveals that she was not in the streets celebrating on that momentous night in 1989, but just went to bed. She was ambivalent, as the world she knew was ending.

“When I am asked about East Germany,” she says, “I am full of emotion, empty of thoughts. This was a reason for me to write this book, the first time for me to reflect and look back. The thought was that East Germany was a better society in terms of solidarity and equality. The experiment failed. I could tell about it in a private story.”

Like a love affair, East Germany had an exciting beginning. In Kairos, Katharina matures and suffers as does the GDR. In the beginning, there was euphoria, but “mistakes were made,” Erpenbeck says. “You try to overcome mistakes, make an effort to make it like before, but when you hide bad things, they fester. They stay and gain weight in the course of time.”

Erpenbeck is interested in how education forms people. Hans is shaped by the ideals of the GDR, and when the system ends, he loses his hopes for a better world. “People like Hans were children in a fascist society that failed,” Erpenbeck says. “Things changed, Hitler youth shirts were discarded, no longer did people use the greeting, ‘Heil Hitler.’ Children had the experience of their parents being wrong; parents lost authority; children lost the feeling of being safe. And then disappointment becomes part of your personality.”

The fall of the wall was not peaceful, Erpenbeck emphasizes. “There was not a lot of time for reunification, for transition. The majority of people wanted to live like the West without understanding the consequences. They had to hurry to understand how Western society works—the energy it takes to pay for your house, to maintain your job. These things were taken care of in the GDR; there was less stress. Art had much more importance. We would wait for books, discuss theater performances.”

When I am asked about East Germany I am full of emotion, empty of thoughts. This was a reason for me to write this book, the first time for me to reflect and look back. —Jenny Erpenbeck

The final issue raised by Hans and Katharina’s relationship is that of a very young woman being manipulated by a man—in this case, an older man. Hans makes her feel guilty about her choices and actions. Erpenbeck tells me that when she did readings in Germany, many women came to talk to her of experiencing these manipulations. This was mirrored in the GDR, where Communists were accused of “not being communist enough” and of betraying ideals, which led them to doubt themselves.

Declan Spring at New Directions began editing Erpenbeck with the 2005 collection The Old Child & Other Stories. “I don’t remember how we stumbled upon her,” he tells me. “It was so long ago. We usually take things on consensus. And we are committed to publishing everything Jenny writes on an ongoing basis.”

Kairos is the sixth book Erpenbeck has published with ND. When the German manuscript was finished in 2021, Spring saw a plot summary and a description from the translator, Michael Hofmann. “Also, friends of New Directions who read German sent reports telling us it was wonderful,” Spring says. “From the moment I began reading the translation, I kept going. It is such an exciting book. Going Went Gone [Erpenbeck’s previous novel, published in 2015] was quiet. It sinks into you. This one grips you from the first page. The story of a frantic love affair. And it’s so intriguing to watch the affair unfold and unravel as the GDR is collapsing. It’s a powerful book and beautifully translated. Jenny always relates to how historical events affect relationships and family, and Kairos does this in a dramatic way.”

Spring notes that everyone in the West thinks of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a great milestone; here is another perspective. He recounts the scene in which Hans is in his office with his colleagues waiting to hear about the fate of their jobs. They begin to understand the devastation they’ll face as they’re thrust into capitalism, and the fact that they might not be able to afford their homes anymore.

Sarah Chalfant, Erpenbeck’s agent at the Wylie Agency, says, “We are deeply honored to work with Jenny. I had been an admirer for a long time and wrote her a letter to inquire whether she might require representation and be interested in having a conversation.”

Wylie began representing Erpenbeck in early 2018. New Directions bought North American print, e-book, and audio rights to Kairos, with Granta publishing simultaneously in the U.K. Rights to date have been sold in 11 languages, and, Chalfant says, “We are in ongoing conversations elsewhere.”

Early on in Kairos, Erpenbeck describes the Greek god from whom the book takes its name: “Kairos, the god of fortunate moments, is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him. Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is sleek and hairless, nowhere to get hold of. Was it a fortunate moment, then, when she, just nineteen, first met Hans?”

Most definitely for us, Erpenbeck’s readers.