Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel Aller Tage Abend was longlisted for the German Book Prize, upon which the judges surprised me and a good few other people by not hoisting it onto the shortlist. I'm not sure why but I do have two suspicions, one of which I'll come back to later. My other suspicion is that they've done like this year's Booker Prize judges and upped the intellectual ante by choosing mainly very, very literary titles. For which there was no great need, unlike in the UK, because the German prize now has a history of picking books that are both readable and challenging. The winner is announced on Monday, by the way, and I'm curious to see which of the six titles makes it – although I have no particular favourite other than Clemens Setz's Indigo, which I'm reading at the moment and finding a wee bit wacky.
Back to Erpenbeck, however. Aller Tage Abend is a novel about 20th-century history, following four generations of a family from a
Galician village via New York, Vienna, Moscow, Siberia to East Berlin. Which has
been done before, let's say. Only Erpenbeck does like to have a trick,
and this time it's possible deaths of her main protagonist, from the
first time as a baby and its consequences to the last time in a desolate care home, ravaged by Alzheimer's.
The novel is divided into five "books" detailing the unnamed characters' lives as influenced by a specific death in very distinct styles. The family is originally Jewish but the protagonist's mother has already been married off to a gentile, a very minor Austrian civil servant on the railways. In the first book, the girl dies at only a few months of age in the early years of the century, prompting her father to flee to America and her mother to slide down the rungs of society. In the second, she dies as a teenager after the Great War, in the third she becomes a communist writer and is arrested for Trotskyist tendencies, dying in Siberia, whereas the fourth sees her falling down the stairs in the young, still hopeful GDR. The fifth book ends with her death in reunited Berlin, old and confused, her life's work somehow ridiculed by the care home's phone call to her son: "We are all in God's hand."
Between the books, Erpenbeck places "intermezzos" playing on the theme of chance. Had her mother rubbed her tiny chest with snow, had she slipped on a frozen puddle, had the file been placed on the right-hand pile - the protagonist would have evaded death. And the separate stories too give chance a major role. Each death means an opportunity for someone else, to find out a truth for example, bitter though it may be. Yet some things are repeated in each version, historical factors beyond escape – poverty, the Holocaust – and character influences such as the protagonist's strong desire to write and her mother's strong will to survive. As we go through the novel, our picture of the family completes itself.
All these possible twists of fate might be a tiny bit gimmicky if Erpenbeck weren't such a good
writer. There are some beautiful passages here (albeit interrupted too often for my taste by whimsical pondering). Yet what I especially appreciated
was Erpenbeck's anger at things like pogroms, purges, and those who take
advantage of them. The strongest section to my mind is the part set in Moscow. It's also the most difficult to read, flitting between a description of the protagonist awaiting her impending arrest and statements from nervous comrades, betraying others to protect their own backs. The communists who sought exile from the Nazis in the Soviet Union included a number of writers, and their story is fascinating. Erpenbeck gives us a devastating insight into those times of fear, sacrificing her protagonist to the whim of a series of bureaucrats while the character herself struggles for admittance into the very system that is about to dispose of her.
If you've read last year's German Book Prize winner, Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts, you'll remember the sections set among communist exiles in Mexico, where the situation is equally back-stabbing but less fatal, and the father's memories of a Siberian gulag. And here we come to my second suspicion about why the novel might not have made it onto the shortlist: on the face of it, there are too many similarities to Ruge's book. Sweeping family saga, East Germany, communists, the woes of the twentieth century - except that happens to be something German writers do very well, and which exports well too.
As a whole, the book works on several levels. Fans of
middlebrow novels (sorry, but you know what I mean) will enjoy the whole
twists-of-fate scenario, historical fiction lovers will get into the documentary aspects and those who enjoy good
writing will of course get their kicks too. You'll be pleased to hear that Portobello Books will be publishing the English translation - perhaps vindication for that shortlist setback. Is it twee and tasteless to say that as one door closes, another door opens? Very possibly.