The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

One of the things I like most about The End of Days is how a potentially sentimental plot is transformed into a thought-provoking and complex work of literature: it would take a rare creative writing tutor or editor to encourage the notion of writing a series of stories about the life of one woman, a series of stories that not only each end in a different time of death, but follow on one from another after interim sections that explore alternative events in which the woman would have evaded death. It is surprising to find not an irritating exploration of serendipity but a searching, eloquent narrative about the nature of chance and the value of human life. Part of each on-going story explores what only others can reveal about ourselves. If those others chose to keep that knowledge hidden, we will always remain a mystery to ourselves.

In a later section of the novel, the woman’s son is visiting Vienna, the city in which his mother once lived as a child.

‘As far as this descendent of a Viennese resident is concerned, Vienna has been washed clean of stories, it took less than a human lifetime for the city to lose all connection to him. Less than a human lifetime for homeland and origins to diverge. He is free, doubly free; he carries around within him a vast dark land: all the stories his mother never told him or that she hid from him; perhaps he carries with him even those stories his mother never knew or heard of, he can’t get rid of them, but he can’t lose them either, since he doesn’t even know them, since all of this lies buried deep within him; for when he slipped from his mother’s womb, he was already filled with interior spaces that didn’t belong to him, and he can’t just look inside to inspect his own interior.’ (Loc 2804)

This ‘vast dark land’ is what writing is all about. The woman herself becomes a writer. She uses words to make sense of the world, to bare witness, to try to be truthful and to hope for a better world to come. Her story is individual and it is the story of the 20th Century. A half-Jewish, half-Christian Austrian, much of the woman’s past is run from, but as the stories progress her desire to forge a new life with knowledge of the past consumes her. But finding one’s true identity is like searching a ‘vast dark land’, an unfathomable abyss of what ifs, where daily life unfolds without a map and leaves us all exposed: ‘Even so, some death or other will eventually be her death. If not sooner, then later.’ (Loc 2552) Are we meant to read the novel thinking that the greatest force in life is death? The son thinks of it as walking around accompanied all our lives by our own corpse. And is this something that is meant to force us to push for a better life or to accept the futility of trying to create change?

Perhaps, in the end, the ‘vast dark land’ inside us is the most important part of us. What matters more than anything are all the possible stories that could be part of us and our attempts to tell even the smallest proportion of them. Of course that’s the writer in me. What could be more important than telling stories? Lies are always the best kinds of truths. But whatever you take from The End of Days, it would be difficult not to be compelled and inspired by just how much one woman’s possible lives can explore.

Next week I’m reading The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware followed by Her by Harriet Lane.