Aller Tage Abend
[The End of Days]
At the moment when her novel begins, in a tiny village in Galicia around 1900, everything is already over. The main character of the novel has just died one night as an infant, and her future life is buried beneath the layers of earth in the grave we see being dug and then filled again. Her young mother was unable to save her child, and even her father was as if paralyzed and later combats his grief with alcohol and shouting. He steals away, abandoning his family, and emigrates to America. We follow him there just as we follow all the book’s characters, watching their stories and fates unfold: the grandmother whose husband was murdered in a pogrom and who refuses to speak of it, the great-grandmother and great-grandfather who cannot get over seeing their daughter marry a goy, a non-Jew. Each of them is given a moment in the spotlight, and the story being told here is cobbled together out of all their various perspectives and points of view. This is the cosmos of Erpenbeck’s novel. Because the truth—as someone will quote Hegel much, much later—the truth is the whole.
And the whole we’re dealing with here isn’t over yet by a long shot. After all, everything might have turned out differently, developed in different ways. One right or wrong move, a fortunate or unfortunate encounter, a word uttered or left unsaid—and suddenly the course of a life takes off in some other direction; maybe a way out of trouble reveals itself, or an abyss. Jenny Erpenbeck understands the power of coincidences—as well as the power of imagination and literature when it comes to continuing down roads not taken and recouping opportunities missed. Indeed, the subjunctive voice truly does become the mode of literary possibility here, the “if only,” “what if” and “but” creating a new narrative compass.
Above all, though, the novel is serious about the figure of speech that gives the book its German title. “Aller Tage Abend” comes from the saying “Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend” (literally: It is not yet the evening of all days; figuratively: It isn’t over till it’s over). Because what would happen if the helpless young mother suddenly has a flash of insight and manages to do just the right thing, grabbing a handful of snow from the windowsill and using it to rub down her infant that is refusing to breathe? If the almost-death of the child and her miraculous rescue become a family legend, if her father doesn't take to his heels but instead moves with his wife and his eventually two daughters from the provinces to the great metropolis Vienna, where he succeeds in clambered at least a rung or two up the career ladder? But even a right decision cannot guarantee a worry-free future. Even in this new place, different as it is, there are challenges in store for the family: hunger, war and deprivation—and here too there are crossroads where further catastrophes await.
If one averted calamity just gives way to the next, does that mean that all the earlier rescues were in vain? For example if couple’s older daughter (the one saved from death as an infant) dies in Vienna as a young girl because instead of staying home one night she goes out and winds up in questionable company? “Probably it wasn’t a matter of the one moment that had just passed but of everything. There was an entire world of reasons why her life might now be coming to an end, just as simultaneously there was an entire world of reasons why she could and should still be alive.”
But of course this death too is not the last word, it is only one of the many branching possibilities that might have branched some different way. And so in a new strand of the story, this character goes on living, becomes a Communist, emigrates to the Soviet Union, finds herself amid the maelstrom of Stalinist terror and then freezes to death in a Siberian labor camp. Or does she? If her file had landed on the left-hand pile of papers instead of the right (or vice versa), she might have survived the end of the war, would have moved to East Germany and become a great writer, celebrated and esteemed.
Jenny Erpenbeck, born in 1967 and the holder of many prizes as a writer and opera director, won a spot on the longlist for the 2012 German Book Prize with this subtly constructed novel of the historical vicissitudes of the 20th century, telling of the ways in which individuals become enmeshed in great world events. The latitude and longitude measurements that show up at various points in the story recall the coordinates of a chess board on which the pieces get pushed back and forth, blind to their own paths and fates. “Is it a sign of cowardice,” one of them wonders, “if one abandons one’s own life, or is it a sign of character, because one has the strength to begin anew?” The novel does not answer this question. But it follows the moves that result from the various decisions and non-decisions, using all these looping lines to sketch out the portrait of an era.
By Matthias Weichelt, 18.09.2013
Matthias Weichelt is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sinn und Form. He writes for a number of publications including the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung".