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Cold Comfort

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Reckoning With Cold War Deceptions

“Kairos” is both a novel about the collision between two people and about the collision of two German lives.

It’s a rainy day in 1986 in East Germany. A young woman spies a man on a bus. They strike up a conversation. “That was all. Everything was underway, there was no other possibility.” This encounter gives Jenny Erpenbeck the title for her fifth novel:

Kairos, the god of fortunate moments, is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him. Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is sleek and hairless, nowhere to grab hold of. Was it a fortunate moment, then, when she, just nineteen, first met Hans?

She is Katharina, an adult by the technical definition we use these days; Hans is 53, with a teenage son of his own. Over coffee, he learns that Katharina is an apprentice typesetter, she that Hans is a novelist. “She had only just been born when his first book appeared. He took his first steps under Hitler.” They repair to Hans’s apartment, his wife and child conveniently absent. Hans pours wine. He plays records: Schubert, Bach, Mozart’s Requiem. “The way her bare shoulder feels in his cupping hand during the prayer, the one curve under the other, is something he won’t forget as long as he lives. To thee comes all flesh, yes, that’s how it is, he thinks, and then he stops thinking.” Sex as profound as a sacrament is rather like a meet-cute on a bus—a convention of fiction that’s maybe a little too rare in reality.

by Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions, 336 pp., $25.95

Hans is not only married, he also has another lover. Katharina takes this in stride: “If you had a thousand women, she says, all that matters is the time that we get to spend together.” Sure, the lust of the middle-aged for the young is a tad unseemly (“The black velvet ribbon moves him, it makes her look like a schoolgirl”), but one night Hans lingers outside the café where they first got to know each other: “What was he expecting, to see them both sitting there, like a waxwork, while he was outside, looking in?” It sounds like love.

We think we know how this is going to go: the man at midlife who chucks it all for a young woman. Indeed, Katharina reads as but a girl, in thrall to her lover the way a toddler believes an adult might indeed have swiped the nose off her face: “How was it possible that Hans knew her better than she knew herself?”

We might assume a contemporary novel will upend the convention: give voice to the younger woman, or reveal romance as exploitation—abuse, even. Erpenbeck is up to something less predictable. Kairos opens with a brief prologue, in which an older Katharina inherits the late Hans’s ephemera. She considers these and her own correspondence and mementos from the time “‘flat product’ for the most part, as the archivists like to say.” These dusty pages were the dialogue between lovers: “the papers in his boxes and those in her suitcase were speaking to each other. Now they’re both speaking to time.” This is a book about a decisive moment in these small lives, but it’s also a novel about a moment in history.

This story can fairly be called Katharina’s coming of age. We see her first trip to the West, when she is granted permission to visit relatives in Cologne. That she imagines the place might smell of the care packages that family send her—“of detergent, gummi bears, and coffee”—reminds us just how young she is. And naïve, her education as a Young Pioneer having failed to prepare her for the sight of people sleeping on the streets. How do they survive the winter? Her uncle reassures her: “they lie on hot-air vents, and they’re toasty warm.”

One of the symptoms of childhood’s end is that you comprehend your elders as human, connected to a reality that predates your existence. On this trip, her grandmother offhandedly tells Katharina of finding photographs of an unknown woman and child in her late husband’s effects. One is labeled with the name of the Norwegian town where he spent the war. “Twenty years I was married to Karl, she says, we had two daughters together, and even so, I’d never say I knew him.”

Maybe the past is uniquely present in Germany; maybe it’s the lot of the German artist to reckon with this. Erpenbeck’s 2008 novel, Visitation, traces the history of a lakeside home in the German countryside, as twentieth-century calamity falls on the various occupants of this bucolic retreat: the Jewish family who must sell it as Hitler gains power; the Russian soldiers who settle in during the war; the man who lives there under the socialist state. In 2015’s Go, Went, Gone, chance encounter binds the lives of a retired German professor and a group of African refugees; the abstract issue of displacement is transformed into something humane and deeply affecting.

Erpenbeck is adept at exploring big subjects via the intimate relationships between people. In Kairos, Katharina peruses a volume on Picasso in Hans’s apartment. “Anyone with sense and ethics was on the Left in those days,” the man tells his young lover. He points out that the Germans rehearsed for World War II during the Spanish Civil War. To this, Katharina has no reply; it makes her think of her grandfather.

Later, on a beach holiday, Hans recalls his childhood near Stutthof, the concentration camp. His father did not work there but “taught the Poles to appreciate German values.” Katharina wonders whether he was in the Hitler Youth. “Violent exercise wasn’t my thing, says Hans. But I liked being part of the select.”

There’s some telling foreshadowing when the lovers stand before the Pergamon Altar. “See how close they are, says Hans, the intimacy of battle, and how well-matched they are. See how alike are love and hate.” We assume age difference means power discrepancy, but in fact Hans and Katharina are well-matched. What is to come for these two bolsters Hans’s assertion that love and hate are closely related—and I’m not just talking about their sexual explorations, the man tying the girl to the bed, then: “Once, twice, three times, he strikes her, each time Katharina flinches. Red welts appear straightaway on her skin. Then he puts his belt down, and applies his mouth to the red welts, which are already swollen.”

Kairos does not condemn Hans for this violence; it does not posit Katharina’s submission to her lover as abuse. It’s a clear-eyed book, morally neutral and the more interesting for it. Hans recalls snooping on another patient during a childhood visit to the dentist: “I heard the drill and listened to her screams. It was the first time in my life that I can remember being aroused.” Serious adults accept that sex is a complicated business. It’s refreshing for a writer to acknowledge this (if somehow unsurprising from a European writer). The act of sexualized violence clarifies something: “Only now, thinks Katharina, do I truly know him. Did he give himself up to her, or she to him? Or, if love is serious, are they indistinguishable?”

This is a hard question to answer, and one I was not especially engaged by. “When Erpenbeck wins the Nobel Prize in a few years,” James Wood wrote of her book Go, Went, Gone in 2017, “I suspect that this novel will be cited.” This prediction was lodged in my mind as I read. I could not believe a writer of this stature would bother with youthful romance, and I was determined to ferret out her true subject. Sure enough, Katharina and Hans’s long dialogue becomes two people speaking to time itself. It’s at once a novel about the collision between two people and one about the collision of two German lives: a onetime Hitler Youth and a girl born into a divided city.

Hans eventually loses Katharina, less to another lover (though she does take those, men and women alike) than to adulthood. He is reminded of an earlier betrayal: “When he was in his early twenties, he was deeply affected by the news of Stalin’s death. Then even more affected, three years later, by the truth about Stalin.”

Later in the novel, Hans’s mind turns to the brutality of occupation:

If in the course of a five-day plan, 200,000 Berliners were removed by 50,000, these 50,000 proletarians would be fused into a collective by the shock of having killed. A thought game of Brecht’s at the time of the emergency decrees, when, shortly before Hitler, starving was considered every citizen’s duty. The abolition of a pitiless world through pitilessness.

A postcoital reflection unlike most, an intimate moment stitched to a historical one. Elsewhere, Hans pens a letter to Katharina about a planned assignation—“Hans writes, once each, the words ‘punishment,’ ‘rape,’ and ‘force.’” These aren’t the filthy promises of one lover to another. This is the language of analysis, a historian documenting the tools of domination.

In Not a Novel, an omnibus of the author’s lectures and essays, Erpenbeck reflects on her East German upbringing, which plainly informs much of Kairos, and the eventual dissolution of the nation in which she was born. Kairos the god has given us the concept of a kairos: an opportune moment. For Erpenbeck, this is the evening of November 9, 1989, when the East German government declared its borders open. What this meant for the state was opaque; were the guards stationed at the Berlin Wall meant to allow citizens passage to the West? They did.

There was suddenly a lot of talk of freedom, but I couldn’t make much of this word freedom, which floated freely in all sorts of sentences…. Freedom wasn’t given freely, it came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point. The price was that everything that had been called the present until then was now called the past.

Reading Kairos, I was struck by how little I knew of the strange compromise that led to the partition of Berlin in the first place. I was 12 when that arrangement fell apart, and I think I remember watching jubilant Germans on the television news. I now have a son about the age I was when the wall came down. As I was reading Kairos, his eighth-grade class was tackling Animal Farm. I wondered what an American boy born when Obama was in the White House could possibly make of Orwell’s allegory. Then felt chastened that an American adult was as stymied as I was by Erpenbeck’s novel.

I read Go, Went, Gone in 2018, and found some resonance between the story of African refugees in Western Europe and the crisis of Central and South Americans at America’s southern border. That novel has a pathos that Kairos does not. Richard, the protagonist, becomes enmeshed in the lives of a group of African migrants. One tells him that the sum he needs to secure his family’s future in Ghana is quite modest. When Richard thinks about various things he has considered buying—a surfboard, a robot vacuum cleaner—it’s unbearable for him, morally, as well as for us, as readers. Erpenbeck’s newer book, even with its heated romance, is cooler, more analytical.

My inability to comprehend how it might have felt to be an East German in 1989—exchanging one’s entire life for something called freedom—felt first like a personal intellectual failing. Then it felt like the author’s very point. Perhaps I can no more imagine being a 53-year-old man besotted with a 19-year-old girl. Maybe history is as fundamentally unknowable as what goes on between two other people: ecstasy and passion, insult and pain, the singular complicated thing we sum up as love. After all, am I not as poorly equipped as Katharina the Young Pioneer was, taught that this decisive moment in history was “our” long-awaited triumph in the Cold War?

We learn, in the novel’s final pages, that Hans was an “informal collaborator” to the state— “deployed to work on appropriate female subjects.” It’s a shocking revelation but somehow as distant as Katharina’s grandmother acknowledging that her husband likely fathered a child in Norway during the war. Just as Hans bound Katharina to a bed, the government “walled up the people to win the people.” Kairos is a love story: that of “a heated struggle—first under conditions of illegality and underground struggle, and then beneath a central government—for the heart of its own people. The institution, not entirely by chance, calls itself an organ.”

Adult Katharina recalls Hans quoting Lenin:

In order to truly know a subject, it is necessary to comprehend and study all of its aspects, all its relationships and instrumentalities.
Is that not just what the organ tried to do?
And sitting here, is she not doing the same thing?

Katharina suggests—with some umbrage— that “only souls from the Eastern part of Germany” are being brought to account for the past. She feels that many Germans who lived through the Nazi period escaped this particular reckoning.

I don’t know what a national process of political reconciliation might look like, in Germany or in the United States, where there’s plenty of atonement to be done. Erpenbeck, however, might already be working in pursuit of that. “Is it the case here,” the author wonders, “that day after day, silently, people come to an understanding of their own lives by way of the understandings of others?” To me, that sounds like the project of fiction itself.