Review: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck - Hindustan Times

Review: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck

ByRutba Iqbal
May 22, 2024 03:25 PM IST

In her novel, set during the reunification of Germany, that won the International Booker Prize 2024, Jenny Erpenbeck demonstrates how the ruins and hopes of the past are inextricably linked with those of the present

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is suffused with a sense of grief. Its characters stay with the reader for a long time and towards the end, it almost feels like they are already dead and their story is emerging from the grave. Erpenbeck keeps the narrative going, while simultaneously laying bare the futility of love, life, death, and everything in between. Despite the creeping sadness, this book isn’t a tearjerker. Erpenbeck will not let you cry; tears are too easy. You have to survive the book like the characters do, without any release. There is no better description of the feeling the novel evokes than Katharina’s own words: “This, she thinks, feels like getting on a sleigh and setting off down a mountainside, which you know will end in an abyss.”

East Berlin in 1990. (Felix O / Wikimedia Commons)
East Berlin in 1990. (Felix O / Wikimedia Commons)

Kairos begins as a classic love story: boy meets girl, like a chance encounter bestowed by Kairos, the god of fortunate moments. But it cannot be a classic romance; Katharina is 19, Hans is 53. Erpenbeck draws in the reader with pure seduction. The intense sex scenes play like an opera, but even before the physical act, the erotic is created through the setting. The author builds the suspense and the reader is left with a heady rush. The chemistry between the characters makes the first few chapters feel like a breeze. The beginning of their love passes in an electric haze; perhaps it is the imminent doom of their relationship and the secrecy that accompanies it that makes the beginning so intense.

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The dynamics of power are there from the start. Hans is older and has a wife, Katharina is young and naive. Even their sex is primarily dominated by Hans’ need to control. In a scene where he shows her explicit imagery, Erpenbeck writes, “Hans watches Katharina as she looks at the pictures, the sight excites him… The obscene enters in at her eyes and goes deep into her mind. And from there it can find no escape. His pleasure would not be half as intense if Katharina’s face did not look so pure”. Katharina doesn’t comprehend what is happening to her but the author makes sure the reader registers the unsaid. She achieves this by harnessing the power of the subconscious; she subtly puts images of vulnerability in the background so the description matches the visual, both elements in harmony.

314pp, ₹1598; Granta Books (Amazon)
314pp, ₹1598; Granta Books (Amazon)

The relationship begins on Hans’ terms. He puts down a condition: the world cannot know about their affair. Sometimes he plays teacher to the curious and inquisitive Katharina, at others he moulds her in his image. His thoughts become hers, his presence or absence become the index of her happiness or sadness. But it would be a folly to characterize their relationship as unidimensional, or label Katharina’s love as obsession. Erpenbeck achieves a rare feat by circumventing themes of shame and sin while describing the beginning of their extramarital affair. When Katharina lies with Hans in his marital bed, the reader is neither revulsed nor titillated but fixated on the description of every action that leads up to sex.

Their happiness cannot last; the clandestine affair is doomed. It doesn’t die an easy death. It comes down crashing and burning even as the German Democratic Republic ceases to exist. Set in Berlin in the late 1980s, during the decay of East Germany and the loss of the communist ideals of equality to the capitalism of West Germany, Kairos presents the slow ruin of time. What begins as tremors (discontent with the economic policies of the communist state, the censorship, the state’s turning a blind eye to the problems of the public) transforms into a full-blown earthquake, marking the end of the GDR.

Initially, Hans had moved to East Berlin after rebelling against his father, a professor who believed in the expansionist ideology (Lebensraum) of the Third Reich. After the war, his father moved to West Germany and was once again hired as a professor “because in the Federal Republic of West Germany they felt they could depend on his knowledge of the history of the East”. It is clear that the perpetrators escape punishment and that geopolitical rivalries stand as the only material truth. “Everything measured against these victims, whether his father’s silence or his own rebelliousness. Aged eighteen, he had wanted to prove to himself and to mankind that he would have behaved differently”.

Erpenbeck’s devastating tale of disillusionment plays out against this backdrop of hope, desire for justice, and the imminent death of certain ideals. The soul of the novel is the contrast between East and West Berlin, Katharina’s youth and Hans’ old age. On her first trip to West Berlin, Katherina is shocked at the sight of beggars. After visiting a West Berlin sex shop for the first time, she observes, “Freedom down there is perpetrating a massacre… And if the fulfilment of desires here is only a matter of price, doesn’t all desire convert into one desire, for cash?”

But the author makes sure the reader cannot separate one from the other completely. Thus, revealing the true nature of the world as muddled. Erpenbeck goes back and forth between the points of view of Hans and Katharina. This constant shifting is not dizzying as the language is simple allowing the reader to adapt quickly. Indeed, it is harmonious, like the music which plays in the novel’s background, complementing the narration.

Erpenbeck does not make it easy for readers. Niche references to the cultural resistance of East German artists like Hanns Eisler and Wolf Biermann, among others, make it necessary to constantly excavate the internet to get the full context. All this is, however, balanced by Erpenbeck’s razor sharp sentences, which come through brilliantly in Micheal Hofmann’s translation. In the aforementioned scene with Katherina in a sex shop, we read that “Excitement stabs her in the belly like a butcher’s knife”.

Hans’ character metamorphoses as his relationship with Katharina progresses. After a fight, she cheats on him and the story takes a turn for the worse. He punishes her, and she takes it as her redemption. In the beginning, the contrast between Hans and Katharina is strong. He belongs to a generation that carries the guilt of World War 2 while Katharina belongs to one that is apathetic to the State. Born after the construction of the Berlin Wall, she is distant from the separation and exile experienced by his generation. Hans consumes Katharina’s youth and she is irrevocably changed. She too now carries a guilt that defines her. A writer, he uses his skill to erode any remaining shreds of her dignity. He beats her, she takes her punishment, and the cycle continues.

Author Jenny Erpenbeck (Courtesy
Author Jenny Erpenbeck (Courtesy

Here, the story loses its momentum a little. The constant repetition of Hans’ cruelty and Katharina’s helplessness is devastating; the narrative cannot move forward. Everything slows down, flowing like a distant memory. Hans cannot let it go, reconciliation is not possible and the reader too has to survive this misery.

As the duo go around in circles, the economy around them is collapsing. People are migrating to West Berlin in huge numbers. The younger generation is disillusioned as they can find no reason to stay back. Right from the beginning, the novel carries an overwhelming sense of an ending, but it is here that the death knell is struck. The two states merge and the erasure of communist history begins. Erpenbeck captures this displacement of old ideals – the complete transformation of the erstwhile communist society into a capitalist one. Freedom is here but can the people afford it?

Translator Michael Hoffman (Courtesy
Translator Michael Hoffman (Courtesy

Erpenbeck demonstrates to the reader how the “ruins and hopes of the past” are inextricably linked to the “ruins and hopes of the present”. Katharina’s witnesses the changes in the familiar geography of her city. Sacrifices both personal and political seem to have been in vain; disillusionment murders every conviction. As everything slithers down, these lines, repeated throughout the novel, reverberate in the reader’s mind: “Anticipation is even better than the thing itself”.

Freedom is here along with the death of hope. Erpenbeck demonstrates how “the abolition of a pitiless world (is achieved) through pitilessness”.

Rutba Iqbal is a writer based in Delhi. She writes on books, art, culture, and movies.

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