Jenny Erpenbeck’s much anticipated new novel Kairos is a complicated love story set amidst swirling, cataclysmic events as the GDR collapses and an old world evaporates
Jenny Erpenbeck (the author of Go, Went, Gone and Visitation) is an epic storyteller and arguably the most powerful voice in contemporary German literature. Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos—an unforgettably compelling masterpiece—tells the story of the romance begun in East Berlin at the end of the 1980s when nineteen-year-old Katharina meets by chance a married writer in his fifties named Hans. Their passionate yet difficult long-running affair takes place against the background of the declining GDR, through the upheavals wrought by its dissolution in 1989 and then what comes after. In her unmistakable style and with enormous sweep, Erpenbeck describes the path of two lovers, as Katharina grows up and tries to come to terms with a not always ideal romance, even as a whole world with its own ideology disappears. As the Times Literary Supplement writes: “The weight of history, the particular experiences of East and West, and the ways in which cultural and subjective memory shape individual identity has always been present in Erpenbeck’s work. She knows that no one is all bad, no state all rotten, and she masterfully captures the existential bewilderment of this period between states and ideologies.”
In the opinion of her superbly gifted translator Michael Hofmann, Kairos is the great post-Unification novel. And, as The New Republic has commented on his work as a translator: “Hofmann’s translation is invaluable—it achieves what translations are supposedly unable to do: it is at once ‘loyal’ and ‘beautiful.’”
The award-winning translator Michael Hofmann has also translated works by Gert Hofmann, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, and Joseph Roth for New Directions.
— Claire Messud - The New York Times
The brutality of her subjects, combined with the fierce intelligence and tenderness at work behind her restrained, unvarnished prose is overwhelming.
— Nicole Krauss
Erpenbeck’s handling of characters caught within the mesh (and mess) of history is superb. Threats loom over their love and over their country. Hans is jealous, weak-willed, vindictive, Katharina self-abasing. At heart the book is about cruelty more than passion, about secrets, betrayal, and loss.
— Kirkus Reviews
In Erpenbeck, Germany has a rare national writer whose portrayals of a ruptured country and century are a reminder that novelists can treat history in ways that neither historians nor politicians ever could, cutting through dogma, fracturing time, preserving rubble.
— Gal Beckerman - The Atlantic
With Kairos, Erpenbeck proves the impossibility, irresponsibility even, of an easy binary and reminds us that the only thing we can be certain of is an ending that will bring along change.
— Amber Ruth Paulen - Full Stop
Erpenbeck is among the most sophisticated and powerful novelists we have. Clinging to the undercarriage of her sentences, like fugitives, are intimations of Germany’s politics, history and cultural memory. It’s no surprise that she is already bruited as a future Nobelist....I don’t generally read the books I review twice, but this one I did.
— Dwight Garner - The New York Times
Erpenbeck presents the intimate and the momentous with equal emphasis, so that personal and historical time run on nearly parallel tracks, until they have no choice but to converge.
— Robert Rubsam - Washington Post
What is past, what is present, and what persists are questions that haunt Kairos a novel concerned with continuity in politics and culture but also with passion and character. … Erpenbeck's spare style, seamlessly blending dialogue, thought, narrative and allusions to German culture, echoes the ideas that animate Kairos, and occasionally the disorientation at its core.
— Ellen Akin - Minneapolis Star-Tribune
In Kairos, Erpenbeck brilliantly uses distortions of memory and distance to elucidate the ways in which history is constantly happening; the future can be made clear if only one pays acute attention to the minutiae of the present––politically, personally, socially.
— Regan Mies - Necessary Fiction
A writer with a roving, furious, brilliant mind…Erpenbeck has done it again.
— Charles Finch - Los Angeles Times
One of the bleakest and most beautiful novels I have ever read. … Erpenbeck never reaches for the stock phrase or the known response. While the novel is indeed bleak in its view of love and politics, spending time with Erpenbeck’s rigorous and uncompromising imagination is invigorating all the way to the final page.
— Natasha Walter - The Guardian
Pain and pleasure do the tango in the engrossing new novel Kairos, the story of a love affair set in East Germany right before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's the latest book from the East Berlin born Jenny Erpenbeck who I fully expect to win the Nobel Prize sometime in the next five years. Erpenbeck—in Michael Hofmann's crystalline translation—provides the richest portrait I've read of what happened to East Germans when their glumly repressive communist state was replaced overnight by a cocky, shopping-mad West Germany that instantly set about erasing the reality they knew – devaluing their money, dismantling their media, denying their values.
— John Powers - NPR
Erpenbeck astutely conveys the affair's quotidian beats...[she] is not a writer who coddles her readers, starting with the coolly dispassionate narrative voice of her fiction, a studied craft that skillfully heightens emotional heft by maintaining tension between what is being conveyed and how it is conveyed.
— Cory Oldweiler - The Boston Globe
Erpenbeck is frequently named on lists of Nobel Prize contenders and, for newcomers to her work, Kairos easily demonstrates why. Its mix of intimacy and historical sweep is astounding. So is its prose. In poet and translator Michael Hofmann's rigorous translation, Kairos' writing feels purified, as if any emotional irrelevancy had been burned out.
— Lily Meyer - NPR
Another major work…ice-pick precise and gorgeously written.
— Barbara Hoffert - Library Journal
Erpenbeck is wary of swift and unequivocal resolutions, choosing instead to reside in extended moments of tension. In effect, almost everything about Erpenbeck’s latest novel, from the musical texture of its prose to its occasionally synoptic narration, is arranged to allow these tensions to remain wonderfully unresolved...There is serendipity in the relationship’s beginning, and necessity in its ending.
— Bailey Trela - Commonweal Magazine
Erpenbeck is adept at exploring big subjects via the intimate relationships between people... [Kairos is] a clear-eyed book, morally neutral and the more interesting for it.
— Rumaan Alam - The New Republic
Erpenbeck’s narration artfully alternates between the perspectives of Katharina and Hans, inviting us to read the mirrored thoughts of this couple, unequal both in terms of age and power. … Her eagle-eyed observations are both poignant and accurate. … Kairos can be read as the downfall of a controlling relationship, but it becomes much more: an analysis of the power balance between a state and its subjects. A compulsive read.
— Catherine Venner - World Literature Today
Erpenbeck’s hypnotic prose and brilliant accounting of German history feel particularly profound. Kairos is an absorbingly bleak look at lost love that will stay with you long after it ends.
— TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2023