Published in German in 2012, I find it fascinating to think that Erpenbeck must have been writing this at the same time as Kate Atkinson was writing Life after Life. Both novels explore the what ifs: what if that oftentimes insignificant moment/decision had played differently? How would things have panned out? Both novels start with the death of a baby. in Atkinson’s case the child dies at birth because the doctor cannot make it through a snow storm. In Erpenbeck’s case a child dies at 8 months because the mother doesn’t know that a handful of snow rubbed into the chest would have resusitated her. Girl child and snow in both cases. Uncanny?
The handful of snow plays its part in the alternate history, and so the child survives to migrate from Galicia to face the trials of the First World War in Vienna. Chance takes her one day down the wrong road (in a literal sense) to her death. An intermezzo takes her down an different road to marriage and another emigration, this time to Russia and the most powerful section of the novel, in which she, a communist and a half-Jew, having fled the Nazis, seeks to save herself from the Stalinist purges.
At an earlier point she muses “How much better it would be … if the world were ruled by chance, not by a god”. The intermezzo in which she escapes from Stalin constitute the most chilling pages of the book – the arbitrariness of chance and the ruthlessness of fate were never more powerfully underscored.
Two further deaths await her but like Ursula, in Atkinson’s novel, other paths enable her to successfully negotiate the 20th century. The fact remains though that Frau Hoffmann finally does reach the end of her days. There’s no side-stepping that issue. Nor the question: did it make any difference at all that the first death wasn’t real?
I won’t pretend to understand the metaphysical questions at the heart of this novel. I will say that, although Erpenbeck is a stylist, she is thankfully becoming more accessible. Though her refusal to name her characters is lamentable. (As in Visitation, so here.) Is this to highlight the universality of experience or to preserve a distance between reader and narrative, maintaining the intellectuality of her writing? Even when her protagonist is named, she is addressed formally as Frau Hoffmann. It’s not possible to connect with her as with Atkinson’s Ursula. Nevertheless the quality and detail of her prose – and Bernofsky’s translation – at times challenging, is extremely satisfying.
Erpenbeck remains on my completist reading list.