Friday, January 30, 2015

The End of Days by Jennie Erpenbeck

Sometimes a life may be extended by a stroke of good luck or ended by a slight misstep. Did the car run through the intersection or stop just in time? Did a stranger at the restaurant know the Heimlich maneuver or not? Did a slip on the ice result in a broken wrist or a broken neck? What does fate have in store for us?

In The End of Days, Jennie Erpenbeck considers the many ways a life may end or continue for another year or more. Her heroine, unnamed until the last chapter, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. She dies five times in this compact novel.  After each death, the author considers small changes that could have allowed the infant, girl and woman to survive. Then, in the next chapter, her life goes on. In this way, the history of an ordinary life in turbulent 20th century Europe is depicted with many possibilities. And so, the surviving infant lives to become a teenage girl who suffers the deprivations brought on by World War I. The girl becomes a woman who dies in a Russian prison camp during World War II. The woman who survives dies in an accident in East Berlin, leaving behind a teenage son.  And then, ninety year old Frau Hoffmann, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia, dies her final death, a death caused by old age. From death there ultimately is no escape.