Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, ‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck and translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky tells the story of the various possible lives of one woman during the twentieth century. The book is split into five stories. In the first part, we learn that a baby has suffocated in a cot in a small Galician town. In the second part, we learn what might have happened had the baby lived as a teenager in Vienna shortly after the First World War. The third part sees her as a communist in Moscow, the fourth part follows her as a celebrated writer in Berlin and finally, as an elderly lady aged in her nineties living in a care home.
At first glance, ‘The End of Days’ seems reminiscent of the structure of ‘Life After Life‘ by Kate Atkinson, exploring the possible paths a character’s life could take and the varied consequences of these outcomes for both the main character and her family. However, the structure Erpenbeck employs also features an “intermezzo” section at the end of four out of the five sections which rewinds the story and offers yet another alternative set of consequences based on the same set of events but with some small changes which drastically alter the characters’ fate. The result is very original and incredibly well controlled and executed. I haven’t read any of Erpenbeck’s other work but I have heard that she uses a similar structure in her novel ‘Visitation’ which tells the story of a house outside Berlin and its various inhabitants over the years.
The majority of the characters are not given names and are mostly identified by pronouns or their positions: mother, father, daughter etc, which can get slightly confusing at times on top of the looping structure spanning the twentieth century in just under 240 pages. While the book as a whole is very ambitious and Susan Bernofsky’s translation is assured throughout, I personally found the first and final versions of the story to be the most powerful and insightful.
‘The End of Days’ is one of just two books along with ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ by Haruki Murakami to make it on to both the official shortlist of this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well as the unofficial shadow panel shortlist. I believe it could be a deserving winner on the shadow panel shortlist and have high hopes that it may also take the official Prize which will be announced later this month on Tuesday 26th May.