The International Booker Prize Reading Challenge: Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann

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? 

- from Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann

I had been planning to read Mater 2-10 as my next novel for the International Booker Prize 2024 Reading Challenge, but having picked up Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck in a quiet moment at the bookshop, I found myself absolutely gripped by it, and fifty pages later, realised that my next book had perhaps chosen me! 

Set in East Germany in the 1980s, Kairos explores a love affair between 19 year old Katharina, and a much older married writer, Hans, whom she meets by chance on a bus, one rainy day in Berlin. This chance encounter irrevocably changes the course of their lives, particularly Katharina’s, as she becomes subsumed in their love affair, moulding herself to Hans’ wishes and tastes in a relationship that, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the wide gap between their life experiences, swiftly becomes unbalanced.

The novel is divided into two main sections, divided by an extremely short chapter titled ‘Intermezzo’, and while I’m sure that it’s pure coincidence that Sally Rooney’s forthcoming novel will also be called Intermezzo, Erpenbeck’s exquisite descriptions of the heady, early days of Hans and Katharina’s love affair reminded me of the very best of Rooney’s writing. So too her depiction of a young woman being controlled and manipulated by an older man reminded me of Marianne’s ambiguous relationship with a Swedish photographer in Normal People, and I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys Rooney’s work.

What is particularly striking in Kairos is Erpenbeck’s technique of directly expressing both lovers’ thoughts and points of view, often within the same paragraph, or even sentence:

It feels good to be walking beside him, she thinks.
It feels good to be walking beside her, he thinks.

Similarly, her use of the present tense makes the unfolding of their love affair seem all the more vivid, meaning that in the first half of the novel, despite the questionable morality of their situation, I found myself swept up Hans and Katharina’s giddy happiness, as they delight in falling in love. Conversely, as their relationship begins to flounder, its destructiveness feels all the more claustrophobic, and while I had eagerly devoured the first part of the novel, its second half was more emotionally challenging. 

What truly makes Kairos a fascinating novel, however, is not only its masterly exploration of love, but also its depiction of a lost place and time: communist East Berlin. Just as we observe the unravelling of Hans and Katharina’s relationship, so too Erpenbeck shows us the dissolution of East Germany, as it is subsumed within and reunified with West Germany in 1990. I knew almost nothing about life in East Germany, and was both horrified and fascinated to discover through this novel just how much of a hold the state held over the lives of its citizens: Katharina has to seek official permission simply to visit her grandmother in Cologne, and is only able to travel to Venice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Interestingly, however, we also observe her shock at encountering beggars in the streets of West Germany, while in contrast, in the East, the young Katharina is allocated an apartment by the authorities, and one of Hans’ first encounters with capitalism is the brutal wave of redundancies that swiftly sweeps through his previously state-run workplace. 

Overall, I would say that Kairos is an emotionally challenging but thought-provoking and rewarding read, which once again I suspect I’ll be thinking about for some time to come. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about this important moment in European history, and for me, it’s a 4.5 star read.

Read an excerpt from Kairos here.

Older Post Newer Post