9781783786138 Kairos Jenny.erphenbeck

“Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck

This is an unusual story, not so much in the “love story” which is the essence of the novel but in the background against which the affair between Hans and Katharina is recorded. Set in East Berlin, she is just 19 when, in 1986 they meet; Hans is 34 years her senior, even older than her own father.

The book opens some years later with Katharina going through two boxes of Hans’s papers which she has inherited after his death. This brings back the memories of their relationship, how it blossomed initially into a passionate, ardent obsessive love affair then mellowed into something far more invasive and torturous.

Katharina initially a student and Hans a writer and broadcaster live cultural lives, surrounded by music art and literature. There are frequent references to each throughout the book enfusing the pages with extra dimensions beyond their affair and how it affects Hans’s marriage to Ingrid and impinges on their son Ludwig.

What starts out as a touching, if not somewhat unlikely, relationship turns into something bleaker and less appealing to the reader. Hans is possessive, demanding controlling and becomes more vindictive as the months turn into years. Jealousy when Katharina, whilst working away from Berlin, has a one night fling, becomes something more ugly.

What makes this novel, beyond the skill of the writer, who was born in East Germany, is the window it gives the reader into the lives of East Berliners in their city in the final years of Communisim. The author’s portrayal of East Germany and the lives of East Berliners, I found very interesting. The politics of the period are shown in passing, the destruction of the wall being referred to but never intruding into the story. The after effects on unification, dramatic on the lives of the older characters; the children and their friends each finding new opportunities after growing up under a state controlled regime.

Without this window into East Germany and the lives of the citizens of Berlin I think I would have not recommended “Karios.” The psychology of the lives and love of Katharina and Hans maybe being too suffocating. Jenny Erpenbeck is a good storyteller, her prose dense but readable. A book I assume that could only have been written by an East German able to shine some light on events now over 30 years ago.

This book has just been honoured with The International Booker Prize 2024