Actually the version I read was the original German, Aller Tage Abend, and I shall refer to the German,but I’m flagging up here the English translation so that as many people as possible read this at times harrowing, but fantastically compelling novel. It spans the whole of the twentieth century, starting off in Galicia, moving to Vienna, the Soviet Union and finally Berlin and dealing with the fate of one family who remain unnamed but are referred to by their family positions- die Grossmutter, die älteste Tochter, which of course change over time, but such is the economy and consistency of Erpenbeck’s characterisation that we always know who is being referred to. Except that one aspect of the story is that we are given alternative fates for the main character, who dies but then reemerges into an alternative life, as if to emphasise the random chance element in survival as well as forefronting the power of the author in deciding on the fate of her characters.
Alongside the role played by chance in the fate of individuals we see the huge historical and ideological upheavals of the century and the consequent deliberate cruelties visited on individuals: the pogroms against the Jews in the East, starvation during the First World War, the terror of Stalin’s regime. It is to the great credit of the author that she manages both to give us the broader picture and the emotional impact on individuals through her communication of intimacy, firstly by recounting the inner thoughts of her characters but also in her depiction of the interactions between people. The image of the happy couple who laugh at the same jokes and fit together bosom to ribs seems so original and yet spot on to describe the lighthearted affection of youth and the deft use of dialogue with the repetition of the assuaging ‘ach, was!’ is used to good effect at strategic points between characters who know one another well.
Jenny Erpenbeck is a mistress of language and uses it to create original and at times disturbing images which recur through the novel and stay in our mind. She uses repetition of key words like ‘Fleisch’, (flesh) in different contexts for ironic effect. She plays with the idea of names, referring to the main characters by their family relations, die Mutter, der Vater, to communists by the impersonal and anonymous Genosse/ Genossin , repeats the list of animal names used to insult Jews and tells us the aryanised version of the names of the Jews allowed entry to the US on Ellis Island. It is as if naming is in the gift of those with power and in fact that includes the author, for it is she who decides in the final book, writing about the end of life, to refer to her character finally, conventionally, by the name of Frau Hoffmann.
For writing, and the power of the word, is also the subject matter of this book. Writing seems at times to represent an evasion of reality, as in the factual reports of 19th century freaks of nature written by der Vater in his work at the Meteorological Institute which clash horribly with the desperate lived experience of hunger of his family. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, writing and words can represent a distortion of reality, and , in the purges, save or, more likely, condemn. Writing can bring in a wage or even personal fame and national accolades, and if you are Number One in the canon, like Goethe, your works may have been venerated sufficiently to have one family heave them around Europe, albeit largely unread-apart from Iphigenie auf Tauris, pored over by the daughter at the end of the First World War. And the choice of that play is not random either. Writing is all those things. It is also the writer depicting the brutality and suffering of people in Central Europe during the last century, using unconventional form and powerful imagery which will stay with you. This book is neither a light nor an easy read, but certainly unforgettable.