Tag Archives: Portobello Books

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.

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The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.  

The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)

Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.

Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.

But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)

As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.

For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)

As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.

In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.

Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)

I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.

This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.

Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)

As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.

Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.

A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)

Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.

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This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.

The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. by Allison Markin Powell

Sensei, I whispered. Sensei, I can’t find my way home.

But Sensei wasn’t here. I wondered where he was, on a night like this. It made me realise that I had never telephoned Sensei. We always met by chance, then we’d happen to go for a walk together. Or I would show up at his house, and we’d end up drinking together. Sometimes a month would go by without seeing or speaking to each other. In the past, if I didn’t hear from a boyfriend or if we didn’t have a date for a month, I’d be seized with worry. I’d wonder if, during that time he’s completely vanished from my life, or become a stranger to me.

Sensei and I didn’t see each other very often. It stands to reason since we weren’t a couple. Yet even when we were apart, Sensei never seemed far away. Sensei would always be Sensei. On a night like this, I knew he was out there somewhere. (pg. 59, Portobello Books)

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Strange Weather in Tokyo is the story of Tsukiko, a woman in her late thirties, who re-encounters one of her old high-school teachers (‘Sensei’, a man thirty years or so her senior) in a sake bar. They meet by chance one evening and over the course of the following months a connection develops as they seek solace in food, beer and sake. Their relationship feels quite unstructured; they rarely make arrangements to reconnect and weeks can pass before their visits to the sake bar coincide. They are both essentially quite solitary individuals, but there’s a sense that they gain some comfort from these encounters.

The story is told through the eyes of Tsukiko and there is an almost dreamlike, slightly surreal quality to the narrative as it unfolds over the course of the novel. We follow the couple as their relationship evolves and deepens; it starts with shared moments in the sake bar and develops to include trips to a local market, a mountain hike to collect mushrooms and a cherry blossom party. There are some wonderfully-observed details in these passages; nature features as a theme and we see the changing of the seasons as the months pass. Another passage features a description of Sensei’s house with its collection of railway teapots and this adds to the slightly offbeat tone of the novel.  In a poignant scene Tsukiko attempts to peel an apple whole, in one long curly piece (she had impressed a former boyfriend some years ago by managing to keep an apple skin intact). This time, however, the apple skin breaks part way round and Tsukiko bursts into tears as the broken peel comes to signify her loss. Tsukiko had been very much in love with this former boyfriend, but she seemed unable to express her feelings or demonstrate she cared for him.

I loved the delicate, nuanced quality of the relationship between Tsukiko and Sensei. There are times when they seem to communicate predominantly through feelings, using few words, soundlessly conveying deeper emotions and intimacy through thoughts and gestures. The unstated, yet deep nature of their relationship contrasts somewhat with Tsukiko’s brief flirtation with an old classmate from school (Kojima) whom she bumps into at the cherry blossom event. There’s a sense that Tsukiko is only content and able to settle in some way when she is with Sensei.

Everything felt so far away. Sensei, Kojima, the moon – they were all so distant from me. I stared out of the window, watching the streetscape as it rushed by. The taxi hurtled through the night-time city. Sensei! I forced out a cry. My voice was immediately drowned out by the sound of the car’s engine. I could see many cherry trees in bloom as we sped through the streets. The trees, some young and some many years old, were heavy with blossom in the night air. Sensei, I called out again, but of course no one could hear me. The taxi carried me along, speeding through the city night. (pg. 92)

I found this to be a beautifully-written and moving novel, expertly and sensitively translated by Allison Markin Powell. I think it will stay with me for some time; the ending in particular brings real emotional weight to the story of Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship. I read this book last year and revisited it in January for Tony Malone’s focus on Japanese literature (January in Japan) and can recommend it to anyone interested in a quietly powerful book about loneliness, connections and the uncertain nature of relationships.

This review was originally published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s January in Japan blog (27th January 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Strange Weather in Tokyo has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (which I’ve been shadowing along with a group of book bloggers). Other members of the IFFP shadow group (Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger) have also reviewed this book (published in other markets under the title of The Briefcase). And here’s another review from Naomi at The Writes of Women. Just click on the links to read their thoughts.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is published in the UK by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, tr. by Sam Taylor

A Meal in Winter is a slim novella, yet it punches well above its weight. The setting is the heart of the Polish countryside at the time of the Second World War. The novella opens in a military camp as three German soldiers — Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator of the narrative — appeal to their camp commander by volunteering to look for any Jews who might be hiding in the surrounding area. By so doing, the soldiers hope to avoid the more harrowing task of executing captives, as they would ‘rather do the huntings than the shootings’. The commander grants the soldiers’ request and they leave at the crack of dawn the following morning before the first shootings begin. This means missing breakfast, too, but it’s a price they’re willing to pay to avoid their immediate supervisor, the heartless Lieutenant Graaf.

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As the soldiers spend a gruelling day combing the countryside in search of a Jew (‘one of them’), the bitter chill of winter and lack of nourishment begin to take their toll:

We came down from the hill where we had smoked. Bauer whined like a dog that he should never have sat down in the snow, that he felt cold all over now. Emmerich told him to stop, though he said it lightly, not really meaning it. Bauer yelled at us that he’d decided to whine until dark. We found another road and stayed on it for a while. It was a relief not to sink into snow at every step. On the whole, we preferred the frozen potholes, even if they were dangerous. (p. 32)

I was beginning to feel hungry, but I didn’t dare bring the subject up yet. None of us had dared mention it since we left that morning. My stomach ached. Sometimes, when I turned my head too quickly, I felt dizzy. It must have been the same for Emmerich and Bauer. (p 32-33)

They find a young Jewish boy cleverly concealed in a hole in the forest, only given away by the heat and snow-melt surrounding the ground-level chimney of his dug-out. Relieved at having captured a prisoner, the soldiers head back to camp. Chilled to the bone, tired and ravenous, they chance upon a deserted hovel and decide to shelter awhile. In desperate need of warmth, the soldiers build a fire and begin to prepare a simple soup from a few meagre ingredients; meanwhile their captive sits quietly in the storeroom.

A Polish man arrives at the hovel; at first his intentions are unclear but his actions soon show his vehemently anti-Semitic nature.

The pole took a step forward, almost touching us, then looked inside the storeroom, through the half-opened doorway. Because, up to this point, the Jew, though very close, had been invisible to him. The Pole stayed there now, motionless in front of us, staring with his black eyes at the squatting Jew, who stared sadly back. After a moment, the Pole turned his gaze on us, and the distinguished handsomeness of his face vanished. He opened his mouth and bared his gums in a kind of monstrous smile, like a dead fish without teeth. (p. 94)

As preparations for the meal unfold, questions arise: should the soldiers share their meal with the Pole in return for a slug of his potato alcohol? Can he be trusted? Will tensions flare and erupt? The mood oscillates and small shifts in the dynamics unfold across the group as each soldier starts to question his choices and the moral implications of his mission…and shadows cast by earlier events are ever-present.

This is a stealthily gripping novella with a real sense of foreboding. The small cast of five key characters coupled with the confined setting of the hovel give the drama a theatrical feel and I could almost see it working as a play. I love the way it quickly whips up an atmosphere and tangible sense of place from the first page. The prose style is fairly spare and to the point (and hats off to Sam Taylor for some sterling work on the translation). There’s not a spare word on the page, and yet it manages to pack a great deal into 135 pages.

I read this novel on a relatively mild spring evening, yet Mingarelli’s vivid depiction of the frozen landscape and biting conditions left me craving the warmth of a bowl of Ribollita, my favourite soup.  And this feeling was only heightened by the soldiers’ anticipation of their meal:

The soup looked good and smelled good. The slices of salami floated on the surface, carried there by the cornmeal, now cooked. The melted lard was still boiling.

We turned away from the stove, and the heat caressed our backs. We watched steam rise from the soup. My head was spinning. We looked at the slices of bread. The soup was continuing to simmer. The edges of the bread were toasted, reminding us of things past. (p.115)

Dare I say this is another book I’d love to see on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) shortlist? While Mingarelli has written many novels and short stories, this is his first to appear in English; I sincerely hope we’ll be able to read more of his novels and short stories in years to come.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed A Meal in WinterStuTony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s blog (25th March 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

A Meal in Winter is published in the UK by Portobello Books.

Source: library copy.