April 25, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 20°C
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Bios & Memoirs


The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis takes a page from Graham Greene and Brian Moore in this moral thriller.

Let Me Be Frank With You

Richard Ford revives Frank Bascombe in time to provide luminous late-middle age insights.

The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson's novel of spies in Africa falls well short of its Graham Greene-Le Carrι mark.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Ismail Kadare's recollection of his year among Soviet literary wannabes is great fun.

All Days Are Night

Swiss novelists Peter Stamm, most at ease with uneasy peace, creates characters to suit that mood.

A Minor Apocalypse

Tadeusz Konwicki's tragicomic reflection of a man about to burn himself alive transcends ideology.


What's growing up in 1950s suburban America without sorcerers and robots?

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro's tame Arthurian allegory ultimately shortchanges its considerable promise.

Young Skins

Young Irish writer Colin Barrett's first book of short stories is an out-of-nowhere knockout.

Adventures in Immediate Irreality

Max Blecher's musing about the terrors of life, and youth, is a near-perfect voyage into sadness.

The End of Days
By Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Portabello Books, 2014. 239 pages

At the core of Jenny Erpenbeck's lyrically moving novel is a fabulist's premise: lives forestalled or catapulted forward based on adjusting their endings. In Austro-Hungarian Galicia circa 1900 a baby girl is born to a Jewish mother and a "goy" father, a civil servant. The baby girl dies, alas, and the crestfallen father flees to America, the mother descending into vagrant prostitution. But wait, what if the infant hadn't died, revived instead by a handful of snow? Maybe she would have grown into teenager with a sister in Vienna as the Kaiser went to war. Only to die "again," shot by madman. Or have circumvented the madman and gone on to live into the abject poverty of the Vienna postwar, only to contract Spanish Flu. Or have dodged both gunshot and flu and, enthralled by Lenin and 1917, became a loyal Communist, eventually accompanying her husband to Moscow and becoming writer. What then? Arrest? Imprisonment? Chance survival through a second war but little further? Or might there be even further progress, this time projected to 1950, with a son in East Berlin, or further still into a 21st-century nursing home at age 90?

Each of these scenarios gets Erpenbeck's tender, metaphoric attention, as do the vicissitudes of anti-Semitism, two wars and their aftermath ("Less than a human lifetime for homeland and origins to diverge.") The whole of 20th-century history and its "hierarchy of worth," is made into a hardscrabble lullaby and summed up by these many possible lives, the details of each one representing the adjustments and realigning of culture itself. "Time is a porridge made of time."

It's an ambitious premise, a tone poem of sorts, one that runs out of steam only when one-time East Berliner Erpenbeck — an opera director as well as an author — pauses to dwell lengthily and at times didactically on the terrifying but arcane details of insider Communist persecution, a felt subject in the context of German unification.

This is a novel of humanity, idealism and ideas in the manner of memory-muse W.G. Sebald. "Who decides," she asks, "what thoughts time will be filled with?" Erpenbeck can't possibly flesh out so many life fugues, but she does come remarkably close to delivering a quilted whole — a marvel in itself.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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