The Old Child and Other Stories – Jenny Erpenbeck

Note: the following are somewhat abbreviated thoughts on this book since I finished reading it almost a week ago, but only just now gotten a chance to jot down notes.

I was introduced to Jenny Erpenbeck through Stefan Zweig when an ancient historian lamented the latter’s renewed popularity—the former, he noted deals with comparable themes in the contemporary climate. The Old Child and other Stories is the second of her books, I’ve read. On the strength of The End of Days, which is on the short list of my favorite reads of this year, it is a little surprising that I was let down by this collection, but, then, the bar was set very high.

The titular story (novella by length) takes up the bulk of the book and was the strongest in the volume. The unnamed old child is entered into a boarding school, looking different from her peers. She is fourteen, but lumpy and boxy, looking old, and is ushered into communal life. After abortive attempts to fit in with her peers and the teachers, the old child adopts silence as a survival strategy, without memory of her past, stoic and unchanging while her peers grow up.

Ultimately, though, trying to reproduce the ambivalence, anonymity, and uncertainty that run through the pages to such great effect in this short summation does it a disservice. The Old Child can be read as a political parable about East Germany, and it introduces many of the themes that came to greater fruition in The End of Days. The writing in the other stories followed this same pattern: powerful, direct, vague, but the only story that I found memorable was Siberia, a short tale about a woman who returned from deportation in Siberia to find it occupied by a mistress.

Nothing in this collection changed my mind about Erpenbeck. Her prose is beautiful and even when the plot of a story was forgettable, the experience of reading it was not. The book, did, however, prompt me to think about how I read the written word in different formats. In particular, my ambivalence toward short stories is hardly a new experience and I do not think it coincidental that I thought the longest story in the collection was the most successful. I like how the extra space gave Erpenbeck the opportunity to develop themes in The Old Child, but I also suspect that this is a personal preference rather than a neutral evaluation.

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I have also finished George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and am now reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise. As a general reading note, I have been doing very well in my goal to read more books by women in 2017, so I am adding midyear reading goal: every non-academic book I start in August is going to be written by a woman and since I have been building a collection of books I am particularly excited to read, including Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, this reading goal may be extended into September.

The End of Days – Jenny Erpenbeck

The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better it would be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.

Shame, then, is the price one pays for this life of freedom, or is this itself the freedom: that shame no longer matters. Then America really must be Paradise.

Even before this, she’d thought at times that deprivation made people more alike, made their movements, down to the gestures of their hands and fingers even more predictable.

A unnamed female child dies in 1900, in a small village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This child was born to a Jewish woman and an Catholic civil servant thrust together by events that included the murder of the girl’s grandfather by Poles. Her death tears apart the unlikely couple, but could it have gone differently?

The End of Days is a beautiful, powerful novel divided into five books, each of which is centered on the death of the same mostly unnamed woman. Some, like the first, open with her death and explore how this causes things to unravel, while others, like the second, build toward her death. Her lives and deaths offer a portrait of the twentieth century in these five vignettes: rural Galicia, Vienna after World War One, Moscow during the purges in the 1930s, East Berlin in the 1960s, and finally Berlin in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The five deaths are bound together by intermezzos that each ask how things could have gone differently, unraveling the events that led to her death and weaving out a new continuation that leads, inevitably, to a different future and a new death.

There is an exploration of the Butterfly Effect, but only in limited ways. Each of the deaths is treated as a confluence of unfortunate events, some with intent and some by accident, but instead of looking at how grand events might have changed, The End of Days focuses treats this one, unnamed woman’s life as the collision point of all the ripples. Thus, the question is: how might this one woman have lived on and how might she have died next.

Each of the other pasts lives on as a dim, mostly forgotten memory of a possible past had things gone differently, and this interplay between remembering and forgetting forms one of the dominant themes in The End of Days. From the outset, unnamed protagonist’s mother does not know her father. He was murdered by Poles and the couple’s treasured collected works of Goethe damaged, but her mother never tells this story either to her daughter or to her granddaughter, while their Jewish heritage is supplanted by marxism, modernism, and German culture. Of course, devotion to Goethe is insufficient to save one from concentration camps. The cycle repeats when the protagonist crafts an autobiography meant to save her from a Siberian labor camp and when she constructs a new past for her son’s absent father. History weighs down every character The End of Days. Yet they find themselves untethered from their family’s past and therefore lacking a sound foundation to appreciate that history.

It would not be entirely untoward to call The End of Days morbid since there a heavy pall of death lingers over the whole novel, but there is a clear affection for this unnamed woman that makes her repeated deaths poignant. In each book, she aspires to live in the shadow of massive events, but her struggles are mundane: to breathe, to find herself as a teen, newly in love and fighting with her mother, to find her husband, to raise a child as a single mother, to reconcile herself to a world changed once more.

These few words do not do justice to how much I loved The End of Days. There is a raw brutality to the story that is bound by tenderness. Time and again I found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs, just lingering on the questions posed or statements offered, including the examples that open the post. This is not to say that The End of Days is limited to one-line quips about modernity. The story builds to each of these observations as a climax before receding slightly and building up again, in a microcosm of how the book as a whole builds to a climax and then unwinds so that it can build up again. The result is an overlapping portrait of a century in Eastern Europe. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

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Next up, I am rereading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We.