When Katharina leaves her job as a typesetter and begins working at a theater company, she catches the eye of a coworker, Vadim. They sleep together, just once, but that’s enough to create an almost insurmountable rift in her relationship with Hans. Both are heartbroken, and tumble into a psychologically dense cycle of forgiveness and punishment. Katharina’s penitence is immediate and somewhat theatrical. She races to a salon where her hair is cut short, so that “she looks like a sinner, like what she is.” Hans, divided, wants both to prolong and to curtail his perceived humiliation, and searches about for a method of renovating the wasteland their love has become.
Eventually, he begins to record a series of cassettes for Katharina, which she listens to alone in her apartment, responding point by point. “In the radio voice in which Hans ordinarily speaks about Schubert, or Janacek or Mahler,” Erpenbeck writes, “he talks for an hour about her and her transgression.” The tapes seem to alternate between great spiels, arias of abuse—an aural assault—and whispery, Beckettian insinuations. The aim is nothing less than the de-creation of a self, the conversion of Katharina’s mind into a blank slate. Hans is transformed into a looming, autocratic figure. “The tapes,” for Katharina, “are the umbilical cord by which terror fattens itself on words,” Erpenbeck writes. “The terror grows and grows, not least because it never ends.”
When Katharina’s mother objects that Hans should have forgiven her by now, Katharina balks at the idea. “Doesn’t her mother understand that the greatest gift Hans can give isn’t forgiveness but the thorough inspection of the wreckage? That’s the only way anything new and lasting can begin.” Meanwhile, life goes on. Hans and Katharina take a trip to Moscow and spend a week admiring the monuments or holing up in their hotel room; they meet for a drink in the Café Arkade; they have whole days when something like happiness steals over them.
For the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, the concept of kairos denoted “the moment in which the eternal breaks into the temporal, and the temporal is prepared to receive it.” Chronos, or quantitative time, dissolves, and our sense of time becomes primarily qualitative. In its original formulation, Tillich’s understanding of kairos as the propitious moment had a political valence; Tillich began using the term after the First World War, when a flurry of cultural and social crises led him to join the Religious Socialist movement.
Erpenbeck’s novel is obsessed with the dissolution of time as we ordinarily experience it, especially, in its final act, with the granular details of life lived amidst “the fusion of two utterly different states in record time.” There is a sense that the propitious moment has not been seized or, at the very least, has not been seized properly. Whatever the hopes for unification, it was, in the end, an unequal union, a failed kairos. To better grasp this failure, a synoptic perspective begins to take over. “Wasn’t it agreed that a unified Germany would get a new constitution? Instead, the Basic Law of West Germany has extended its jurisdiction over the eastern part of Germany,” Erpenbeck writes. “Was that fair? Gummi bears, handbags and scarves. An entire guerrilla army of hitherto law-abiding Eastern maidens swarms out to hit the West where it feels it the most, which is in the matter of ownership and payment.”
When these lines appear, the narrative is focused on Katharina, and there are elements that might have emerged from her consciousness. But something else seems to be going on. The third-person narration seems to be filtered through and inflected by a communal rather than an individual consciousness. It’s as though the society itself is speaking. At the very least, we seem to be overhearing, even participating in, a ructious conversation taking place in a currency exchange line or some other public space.
In the novel’s final act, Hans and Katharina almost seem to retreat into the wings, as this communal perspective begins to predominate. This isn’t a criticism—the relationship between the individual and society is simply another dialectic that Erpenbeck prefers to leave unresolved. For Tillich, kairos necessarily involved a working through of the “concrete tensions” between the present and the future—which, as Erpenbeck’s novel makes clear, is precisely what failed to occur in the early 1990s. The obvious and unavoidable tensions between East Germany and West Germany weren’t resolved so much as swept away.
As a novelist, 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—even those which seem to be at the heart of the relationship between Hans and Katharina. Erpenbeck is careful not to make their relationship into an allegory for German reunification, and indeed, reading Kairos, one begins to sense that the love of Hans and Katharina has been falling apart from the moment they met—and that this is nothing to be sad about. Erpenbeck almost wants us to feel it as a relief that the lovers are allowed to go their separate ways. There is serendipity in the relationship’s beginning, and necessity in its ending.
Trans. by Michael Hofmann
$25.95 | 336 pp.