Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Many respected critics have predicted that Jenny Erpenbeck, born in 1967 in the former East Germany, will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature within the next few years and her latest novel, Kairos, is indeed evident of a brilliant if not a great writer.

This layered account of a doomed, intense love affair between a nineteen year old girl working in theatre design, Katharina, and Hans, a writer in his late fifties, is deeply moving; but as it progresses over time, harrowing in the manner in which Hans becomes cruel and controlling.

It begins in the rain, at a bus stop in the old East Berlin in 1987 just before the fall of the Wall in 1989. Both Katharina and Hans take the same bus, become aware of each other, then share a coffee.  A rapturous night follows to the background of a recording of Mozart’s Requiem.

Michael Hofmann’s masterful translation has brought the finely detailed and heightened sensitivity of the initial stages of the relationship to life in an extraordinary way, which emphasises the deterioration in this early bliss. Hans begins to dictate the terms, insisting on S&M episodes and her exclusively belonging to him, although he himself enjoys other lovers and a life with his wife and son. The affair deteriorates further when he learns of Katharina’s dalliance with Vadim.

Kairos is a Greek word meaning opportunity. He was the god with a single lock of hair on his forehead. To grasp that was to ensure good fortune.  Kairos plays a powerful role in the novel. It sets it in motion.

It is an opportunity too, to explore life in the former East Germany. Jenny Erpenbeck grew up in the GDR and she experienced a life in the socialist state which was simple and straightforward within the government embrace. Choices were limited but there is no implication that the populace suffered from this.  The fall of the Wall, with the devaluation of the currency and the introduction to the capitalist society, shocked East Germans.  The freedoms and variety of the West were intimidating and for many, unappealing.

Jenny Erpenbeck  is such an accomplished writer that she can seamlessly combine an heroic and shattering love affair with insights into the German nature, politics, music and theatre.  History is ever present. Their apartment is close to the bunker where Hitler and Goebbles suicided.

Kairos is in the present tense which lends a pulsating rhythm to the affair with the added dimension of knowing from the opening pages that Hans is dead.  She writes, ‘the present trickles down, moment by moment, and becomes the past…’  How superbly she renders this in Kairos.

Besides being an account of a passionate love affair, the novel is also about living through a significant stage In history. This too was the case in her former novel, Go, Went, Gone, which explored the plight of Germans and the realities of the influx of refugees. The four other novels contain this layered historical backdrop as well. The quote above, in today’s world, is fast accelerating. Relationships alter with this pace. Katharina’s and Hans’ endured for a couple of years, only one, truly happy year….does this suggest that history and changes wrought, shape human affairs?

The hopes and ideals of the German state disappear as the Wall disintegrates.  Simultaneously the affair has ended.

Kairos is bleak, beautiful and monumental in every aspect.



by Jenny Erpenbeck; translated by Michael Hofman

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 178378 612 1

$34.99; 304pp

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