Tangled and tortured

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is a serial love story nestled deep in progressively larger loved realities much like a reverse matryoshka doll. Kairos is the god of fortunate moments and like Hans has a lock of hair falling into his eyes.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 22:12 IST

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July 1986. Two rain-delayed strangers reach the Hungarian Cultural Centre in East Berlin after closing time. Instead of going back home, they have coffee. Just 19, she orders hers black to appear sophisticated to this man 34 years her senior. This misadventure ought to have ended here but after walking away he rejoins Katharina and ends up taking her home. She reciprocates by sleeping with Hans on his marital bed. And in doing so invites the reader into the vortex of their chaotic spring-autumn liaison, thoughts, intimacies.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is a serial love story nestled deep in progressively larger loved realities much like a reverse matryoshka doll. Kairos is the god of fortunate moments and like Hans has a lock of hair falling into his eyes. At his home that first night Hans pours out wine and plays snatches of music as an extension of his other job as a radio freelancer; his first, as a writer. And this music, the pinnacle of European art, philosophy and political thought, weaves in and out of their numerous discourses, light as a dance of snowflakes.

Shrouded from the rest of the world, East Germany was an iron-curtained mystery except for regulated outings at the Olympics up to its fall in 1989. This is where there was no Mercedes, BMW, Audi, no Autobahn, no Oktoberfest, no prosperity and scientific precision that West Germany stands for. It is a sudden gift, this parting of the veil, this truly lived memoir of life in a Berlin lacking the Western world’s excesses but powerful in thought and experience, rich in buildings, cafes and streets. Hans chose to move to East Berlin as a teenager from Gottingen for political reasons, for as a former fascist, he mourned the dead Soviets. “How long does it take for the dead to be forgotten? 27 million Soviet dead. The dead are linked umbilically to the living by their hope for punishment to be exacted. Everything measured itself against these victims, whether it was his father’s silence or his own rebelliousness.”

Searing ache

At 19, for the first time, Katherina has the papers to visit her grandmother in Cologne. The matriarch and her two daughters in each half of Germany are stitched together by letters, visits and too-expensive phone calls. She recalls her experience there journalistically while missing Hans with a searing ache. “Or is this grey station, and that with the power to hold two different sorts of time, two competing presents, two everyday realities, one serving as the other’s netherworld? But then, where is she, when she stands on the borderline? Is it called no-man’s-land because someone wandering around in it no longer has any idea who he is?” Later she moves to Frankfurt for her career, torn between the two cities: ever travelling, ever missing performances in the other, ever unravelling.

An extra-marital affair is never pleasant with his marriage an iceberg against her hope for permanence in love. Hans has other mistresses too and knows the girl must outgrow him even the moment he meets her. “Every day, Ingrid lays out trousers, shirt, and socks for Hans to put on. She dresses him, and Katharina undresses him. The socks go with the shirt but no tie, please. Ingrid makes him the well-turned-out fellow she likes being seen with. That she likes, or that Katharina likes. And, like a kid, he lets it happen.” Ingrid finds her photo in his pocket and gives him the silent treatment for three days but she has a habit of tolerating his “whores”. What she does not know is the darkness he is capable of.

Yet the first nail in the coffin comes not from their situation but from a colleague Vadim who supports her and their camaraderie drifts into easy intimacy. The veneer of sophistication in Hans tears off to reveal the controlling macabre abuser who toys with her mind, flogs her bottoms and denies her his touch. Forced to return to Berlin, she is back in his orbit. Just as the forbearance and familiarity of East Germany dissolve into nothingness, so does their relationship. He engulfs her, with rage and contempt just as the wealthier West Germany easily overpowers each cultural element of its outdated lesser counterpart. That she loses herself completely and seeks refuge in her alter-ego Rosa is symbolic of a much deeper capitulation of a people and their history.

The language and the craft are indeed Booker-worthy in this cultural history marvel. The intellectual prowess and labour that go into bringing alive the pathos of a country now dead is indeed the utilisation of pure philosophy disguised as sentences. Kudos to the translator for a near-perfect rendition that brings to us an inaccessible world in familiar phrases. This is, to those who’ve lived then, a eulogy to the 20th century, blemishes and all.

Published 06 July 2024, 22:12 IST

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