IFFP 2015: Erpenbeck and González

EndofDaysJenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

I’ve come across several novels on this year’s IFFP longlist which examine the twentieth century through the lives of ‘ordinary’ individuals, but this may be the sharpest one yet. The protagonist of The End of Days is born in the Austrian Empire at the start of the century; each of the novel’s five ‘books’ imagines that she died at a different point in her life; the short ‘intermezzo’ sections between them run through all the small differences – walking down this street instead of that; a window left open to let the air in – that could have kept her alive.

The first thing to say is that Susan Bernofsky’s translation is very potent indeed. When I read the first page, in which the protagonist is buried as a baby, it was so powerful that I almost had to put the book down (something that rarely happens to me): as handfuls of earth are thrown into the child’s grave, each is described as covering the girl or woman who might have been. The rest of this first section is full of tiny but resonant details, like the toy whose bells make the same jingling noise they did the day before, although so very much has changed. The protagonist’s death at such a young age is presented as a hole in reality for her family, beside which all else becomes insignificant.

The structure Erpenbeck has used enables effects like this. In The End of Days, ‘history’ in the broad sense doesn’t change; it is the individual’s interaction with history that changes. In each iteration of the protagonist’s life, her death means something different: in one section, she joins the Communist Party and moves to the Soviet Union, but dies labouring in the gulag; in another, she escapes internment and dies thirty years later, a celebrated writer and Party member; in the last, she lives to be ninety, and is one resident among many in an old people’s home. Erpenbeck’s novel intertwines the personal with the grand sweep of history to great effect, underlining the importance of both. I would certainly expect to see The End of Days on the IFFP shortlist; for me, it’s potentially a winner.

ItBWtS

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (1983)
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (2014)

One of the interesting things about the IFFP (or, if you prefer, something that points to just how much literature from other languages remains untranslated into English) is that we’ll see the odd book which was originally written much earlier than the translation. Such is the case with In the Beginning Was the Sea, the first novel by Colombian writer González, and his first to appear in English, some thirty years on. I actually read this last year, but didn’t review it at the time, because I didn’t particularly care for it. Looking back, I think I was thrown by what the publicity material said about the book’s inspiration (which, for that reason, I won’t reveal here).

This is the story of Elena and J., a couple of intellectuals who leave behind city life to begin a new life by the sea. But money problems mean that they are going to have to earn a living from their land, and it’s not going to be plain sailing. There are hints (and increasingly clearer indications) that all is not going to end well; the novel becomes a chronicle of ill fortune, with a claustrophobic air of dread created by Frank Wynne’s translation. We know that something is coming, but not precisely what – and, for all the foreshadowing, González doesn’t make it feel too staged. I appreciated In the Beginning Was the Sea more the second time around, though I don’t anticipate that it would necessarily make my shortlist.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

10 Comments

  1. I haven’t read In the Beginning yet but kudos for spelling “Colombia” right! I agree that The End of Days is a sparkling achievement, a likely winner that would not disappoint me. However, personally I suspect that, for me, While the Gods Were Sleeping will be my favourite. I’m currently reading The Ravens which another strongly literary entry after taking a day off to tuck in a non-IFFP read.

    • Thanks Joe! I expect the Mortier will be up there as well – could be tricky to call a winner… What’s the non-IFFP book you were reading?

      • I squeezed in Signs Preceding The End of the World by Yuri Herrera, the most recent from And Other Stories that I had picked up just as the long list was announced. It is a short but powerful read, imagine Dante’s Inferno or Alice in Wonderland in nine short chapters. It’s just awesome and has been very well received (maybe we’ll see it on next year’s IFFP). It’s about those who risk the journey to cross from Mexico to the US and, maybe, back again. It was staring at me with its striking black and white cover and I just couldn’t wait any longer. Highly recommended (see my review on my blog).

  2. Doesn’t the device in The End of Days sound a bit like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (a novel i didnt like and couldn’t finish)?

    • Hi, BookerTalk. I guess superficially it does, though as I understand it Life after Life is a character living her life over and over again from birth, whereas this is written as a single life ending in five different places, if that makes sense. I haven’t tried Life after Life yet, so I can’t comment on how the books compare; but I would certainly recommend End of Days.

  3. 11 books in I still feel The End of Days is the best. Have you read any else by her?

    • Hi, Grant. With one book left to read, I would tend to agree with you. I haven’t read anything else by her, but you can be sure that I will do! How about you?

  4. I think I would have read In the Beginning differently had I not known the back story too… I enjoyed it though and I think the translation was excellent. I still haven’t read the Erpenbeck yet which seems to be a unanimous favourite among the shadow jury so far!

    • Hi, Clare. I agree, it’s a very good translation of the Gonzalez. This time around, I deliberately tried to read without the back story in mind, and I think I was better off for doing so. The Erpenbeck certainly seems to have the strongest consensus from the greatest number of members – it’ll be interesting to see how that works out when more of us have read a majority of the books. I think it’s going to be a strong contender, though, for sure.

  5. The Erpenbeck sounds very good. Reminiscent as pointed out of Life after Life, but a different approach and there’s no harm anyway in reusing (or differently using) a concept to explore new things.

    I have however an unread Erpenbeck, so that’s a no to that for me for now.

    I’ve read several reviews of the González and even yours which is a little lukewarm still attracts me to it, though it may just be that utterly marvellous cover.

    On another note I just read roughghosts’ Herrera review, whic does sound very good indeed. It’s worth tracking back to rough’s to read the review.

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