The End of Days, the new novel by German writer and opera director Jenny Erpenbeck, starts at the turn of the 20th century, with the accidental death of an eight-month-old Jewish girl in Galicia. Traumatised by this loss, her father flees to America and her abandoned mother becomes a prostitute. At this point, Erpenbeck pauses the passage of time. What would have happened, she asks, if the child had lived? The rest of the novel is split into sections, each playing out a possible future. In one, the girl grows into a lovesick youth in Red Vienna; in another, a young wife in Stalin’s Moscow. Next she’s a middle-aged author in East Berlin; then an elderly lady in a nursing home. In each case, of course, death catches up. The teenager dies in a suicide pact; the wife falls foul of the Great Purge. A slip on the stairs claims the author; only the old lady dies a natural death. Between these episodes, Erpenbeck inserts brief intermezzi, in which she adjusts a few crucial conditions, letting her character live a bit longer. However, whatever the course of her life, ‘some death or other will eventually be her death’.
During this twisting, forking story, Erpenbeck stresses the triviality of the events that cut life short. What if the wife had been away the night the police were assigned to arrest her? What if the author had put her other foot first on the stairs? Death’s mystery, the novel suggests,