Book Review: ‘Kairos,’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

Book Review: ‘Kairos,’ by Jenny Erpenbeck

Hans, a 50-something novelist and high-minded writer for radio, is handsome and rangy, and he looks fine with a cigarette. Katharina doesn’t like to weep in front of him, so when she anguishes one evening over a coming internship that will keep her in Frankfurt for a year, she waits until he steps out to run some errands:

She takes advantage of his absence and cries now. Cries as she vacuums, cries as she cleans the kitchen, cries in the bathroom as she scrubs the shower and sink, only briefly stops crying when she goes to take the empty bottles downstairs and starts to cry the minute she’s back in the apartment, cries as she takes down the pictures which she and Hans hung up together.

To witness someone else’s tears is not necessarily to be moved yourself. But to absorb “Kairos” is — like reading “Wuthering Heights” or “On Chesil Beach,” listening to albums like Lou Reed’s “Berlin” or Tracey Thorn’s “A Distant Shore,” watching the film “Truly, Madly, Deeply” or ingesting an ideal edible — to set yourself on a gentle downward trajectory.

If “Kairos” were only a tear-jerker, there might not be much more to say about it. But Erpenbeck, a German writer born in 1967 whose work has come sharply to the attention of English-language readers over the past decade, 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. Her work has attracted star translators, first Susan Bernofsky and now the poet and critic Michael Hofmann.

“Kairos” is Erpenbeck’s sixth book of fiction to be issued in English. Her previous novel, “Go, Went, Gone,” was published in the United States in 2017. It’s about a retired classics professor who becomes embroiled in the fate of African refugees in Germany. I found it powerful but often tendentious.

“Kairos” — the title refers to the Greek god of opportunity — is her earthiest novel to date. It’s not just the sex; this is a novel in which pansies are said to resemble Karl Marx and looking inside a stranger’s refrigerator is said to be as good as going to the cinema. She is also writing more closely to her own unconscious.

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