People stand on the Berlin Wall, Germany, November 1989 (INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo).

The plot of Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Kairos, begins with an aria to chance. On a Friday in July 1986, on a bus trundling through East Berlin, the eyes of a young woman and an older writer meet. There is the usual guesswork, the play of expectations. Is he really looking at me? What could she possibly want? They get off at the same stop, happen to be heading in the same direction—when their destination turns out to be closed, they end up having coffee. It’s a model meet-cute, serendipity squared.

Later, when the young woman, Katharina, contemplates the sheer contingency of their first encounter, she experiences a sense of vertigo. “The thought that everything might have come about differently if she’d left home ten minutes later,” Erpenbeck writes, is “enough to make her head reel.” The man, Hans, is similarly stricken. “I feel ill, he says, when I think of the odds of us sailing past each other, and never meeting.”

Time, in several senses, defines the relationship that emerges from this chance meeting. There is the age gap, of course: when the affair begins, Katharina is nineteen, an apprentice printer and typesetter; Hans is fifty-eight, a respected novelist and radio presenter. Generationally, the gap is even wider. “She had only just been born when his first book appeared,” Erpenbeck notes. “He took his first steps under Hitler.” There is a sense as well that a pendent historical moment has fostered the affair. In other words, what makes the relationship between Hans and Katharina tick is that it seems to have come about at precisely the right time.

This is, as the novel’s title suggests, thematically on point. For the ancient Greeks, as Erpenbeck points out early in the novel, Kairos was “the god of fortunate moments,” a fleet-footed purveyor of opportunity who had to be seized the moment he presented himself. As the god of chance, Kairos provides a stable ruling conceit for the novel, even as his presence diminishes over its course.

Technically, the novel opens in the present day. Hans has just died, and in America two large cardboard boxes arrive on Katharina’s doorstep, filled with “letters and carbons of letters, scribbled notes, shopping lists,” and so on—the material remains of their relationship. Kairos is divided into five parts, with two large chunks, set in the late 1980s and early ’90s, that correspond to each of the boxes deposited on Katharina’s porch, as well as a brief prologue, intermezzo, and epilogue that occur in the present day. What we’re meant to take away from these boxes is unclear—if anything, they seem an arch memento mori, a reminder that history, in the end, only ever boils down to this: a box of small nothings, a personal museum.


The book’s atmosphere is a haunted one; remnants of past regimes and hints of the neighboring state spring up constantly.

Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s leading writers, has a strange half-presence in America. Her last full-length novel to appear in English, 2017’s Go, Went, Gone, was praised by the likes of James Wood for its sensitive treatment of the 2015 European migrant crisis, and brought a new level of attention to her work, even as its intensely contemporary setting and journalistic ethos set it apart from her other fiction. The publication of Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces in 2020 brought a renewed focus to Erpenbeck’s writerly roots. Born in East Berlin in 1967, she was twenty-two when the Berlin Wall came down, which helps to explain her work’s persistent probing of borders, freedom, silence, and control.

As Not a Novel makes clear, the much-vaunted freedom that roared into the former German Democratic Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall came at a curious price. “[E]verything that had been called the present until then was now called the past,” Erpenbeck writes. “Our everyday lives weren’t everyday lives anymore, they were just an adventure that we had survived.” While this sense of a life divided suffuses all her writing, the experience of growing up in the GDR and navigating a reunified Germany as a young adult has rarely taken center stage in Erpenbeck’s fiction. Kairos, set largely in the late 1980s and early ’90s in East Berlin, is her clearest engagement with that history to date.

The book’s atmosphere is a haunted one; remnants of past regimes and hints of the neighboring state spring up constantly. When Hans and Katharina cross the Weidendammer Brücke, they move “past the iron eagle left behind by the state before last.” As Katharina walks over “the metal grid of an U-Bahn airshaft,” she can hear “the clatter of a West Berlin train underfoot” and feel “a puff of Western air” rising and merging with the “Socialist weather” surrounding her. The delicate irony of “Socialist weather”—as if the air itself were different on either side of the Berlin Wall—captures a complex, self-aware state of mind, one that intermingles weary protest, self-mockery, and even longing.

At the center of the novel, of course, is the love affair between Katharina and Hans, which begins in rapt involution. “It’s bliss, says Hans, a state he’s rarely experienced before with another person: withdrawal from everything roundabout into one’s own essence,” Erpenbeck writes. “A kind of inner emigration.” Hans, and to a lesser extent Katharina, retreat into an ordered space of their own making. We sense a personal crisis brewing for Hans: “Everything about his life at this time is provisional.” What’s more, he seems to sense that whatever happens in their love or in the world, Katharina will be fine—that there is a flexibility, or at least a necessary thoughtlessness, in her youth. Not that this is a subject he broaches; part of their contract—unspoken, it seems—is that the grit and particulates of their relationship are never touched. “Because everything is avoided that might make one or other of them sad, sadness suddenly comes to occupy a lot of space between them,” Erpenbeck writes. “He is old enough to know how the end likes to set its roots first imperceptibly, then ever more boldly, in the present.”

Fittingly for a novel about an all-consuming love affair, Kairos is written in a complex, interleaved style, and like many of Erpenbeck’s novels, it makes use of a slyly omniscient narrator. The playfulness of Erpenbeck’s prose (translated here by Michael Hofmann) is almost musical. Music is everywhere in Kairos, from the protest songs of Wolf Biermann, to classical compositions like Chopin’s A-minor mazurka, while stylistically the novel takes a contrapuntal approach to language, dialogue, and theme. Hans and Katharina’s first sexual encounter, for instance, is set to Mozart’s Requiem in D minor:

The dead go trembling up to Heaven, while the two human bodies turn themselves into landscape that may not be seen, only grasped, contours tracked with innumerable paths, where one may not run away, you know, he says, the next section is the Dies irae, the day of divine fury, no, she says, shaking her head as though she knew better, you’re wrong, and she pulls him even closer to her.

There is give in the syntax, a looseness that interweaves art and sensation. Erpenbeck’s novels tend to avoid direct dialogue, couching it instead as recollection or otherwise filtering it through a character’s consciousness. The result is a slurring, sliding effect. It’s a prose uniquely suited to capturing the later stages of Hans and Katharina’s affair, which takes a dark turn toward sadomasochism.

There is a sense that the propitious moment has not been seized or, at the very least, has not been seized properly.

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.

Jenny Erpenbeck
Trans. by Michael Hofmann
New Directions
$25.95 | 336 pp.

Bailey Trela is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Baffler, Frieze, the Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents
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