Have you ever imagined how your life might have turned out differently if at some point you had made a different decision? Would you have made different friends, lived in a different place, grown up to be a different person? The possibility that your life could be entirely different had one detail shifted—either in your life or in someone else’s—is at the heart of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year. While I don’t consider it an easy book to read, I still fully enjoyed it. I read the book in German, but based on the excerpt I read of the English edition, the translation seems excellent.
The book has five distinct sections, and in each one, the female protagonist dies at different times in her life. The sections are connected by Intermezzos of “What If” scenarios that show how easily each death could have been avoided. An icy puddle might have forced her to walk down a different road, or someone’s fluke memory of a certain moment might have spared her the trip to a Russian labor camp.
The characters don’t have names. They are identified by “the baby,” “the mother,” “the older daughter,” etc. I was surprised by how easy it was to keep track of the characters, even though at the beginning of each new book, I had to quickly readjust my thinking. “The baby” had become “the older daughter,” and “the mother” was now “the grandmother,” etc. While following the life—and possible deaths—of the main character, I also got a glimpse of how history shaped her identity and destiny.
The book starts during the Hapsburg Empire, continues through the First World War, the founding of the Soviet Union, the Second World War, the split of Germany into East and West, and finally the country’s reunification. These events are in the background of the story, but they still play a significant role. Without the prosecution of the Jews, for example, the grandfather would not have been murdered, the mother would not have been ostracized for marrying outside of her religion, and the younger daughter might have been spared deportation. Who knows what might have happened to the grandmother’s beloved collected works of Goethe, which her great-grandson considers buying at an antique store in Vienna without even suspecting that they once held great significance to someone in his family.
If this sounds trite, believe me, it isn’t. The more I think about this book, the more I realize how much these little incidents shape the story and my reading experience. There might be an event that seems inevitable, but just a slight adjustment of the circumstances would have meant an entirely different outcome. For example, the death of the older daughter, with her suicidal thoughts, might seem inevitable in Book III. But during the following Intermezzo, it is suddenly so easy to avoid her death. Because of an icy puddle that made her decide to go one way instead of another, she met a young man with the gun that killed her. But what if there hadn’t been an icy puddle? What if she had left her house just two minutes later that day? What if her mother had sent her to stand in line for food that day? What if the temperatures had been warmer that month? She would have never been at the exact spot at the exact time for a meeting that led to her inevitable death in Book III.
On top of these “what if” questions, there was the growing realization that I didn’t even really know what to consider “the truth” in this book. For example, when the father dies shortly after World War I, his wife and two daughters come up with three very different explanations for his death. Each made sense, based on the woman’s personality. There was no right or wrong way to interpret his death, and the reader is not asked to judge the three women in any way. But the three explanations for the father’s death lead each woman into a completely different direction for her future. When looked at by itself, the decisions each woman made based on her interpretation of the father’s death seemed inevitable, but again, I was aware that only a slightly different decision here or there in time would have meant a different life for each woman.
This odd connection between chance and inevitability, the way our life is shaped not only by our decisions but also by our circumstances, is what I am taking away from the book. I can’t stop thinking “What If” ever since finishing the book.