Skip to content

Fifty Shades of Red

Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel of love and politics

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, 336 pages. 2023.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is a novel of love—her first. It is also the first of her many celebrated fictions to explicitly take on a latent idée fixe of her literary career: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. The sudden collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989 left Erpenbeck—born in 1967 to a family from the East Berlin cultural elite—without the only homeland she had ever known. Of reunification, she said in an interview with the writer Peter Frederick Matthews, “From one moment to the next, all our accumulated knowledge was no longer of use.”

On the one hand, history; on the other, a love story. How do you narrate these two things together, without falling into cheap allegory or the ahistorical kitsch of “lovers against the world”? And more to the point: Why would Erpenbeck—a past-obsessed star novelist, a restless innovator and bricoleuse of narrative forms—suddenly reach for romance when taking on the one historical event that means the most of her (and the one that, presumably, gets her into the most heated arguments with fellow members of Germany’s smugly anticommunist literary establishment)?

Lovers, after all, don’t see anything clearly, let alone history. “Wanting,” says a character in Kairos, “distorts measurements.” And lovers tell strange, unjustified stories about the past. Desire bends the world, upending what matters and what doesn’t. Any moment can become obsolete or vital, according to Cupid’s essentially arbitrary whims. In his book Legal Tender, the literary scholar John Griffith Urang put it this way:

A love story solicits a certain credulity, a suspension of disbelief stretching from start to finish. Love can set a plot in motion; it can provoke all manner of action and sentiment; it can mean the protagonists’ life or death, joy or undoing. In the love story, all’s well that ends well, and all loose ends are tied in the lovers’ final embrace. Yet the conditions of love, its grounds and purpose, appear unquestionable, even if its limits are probed and its depths tested.

Nonetheless, in Kairos, history and love are made to share a flat. Each has their own thing going on, but they split the chores. Erpenbeck’s novel consists of two breakups: one romantic and one political. It narrates the end of an affair between a young East German woman, Katharina, and the much older Hans, covering the period before, during, and just after the collapse of the GDR. The lovers’ relationship, like the GDR, is obsessed with the story of its beginning, and with the high utopian hopes and ideals it once seemed to promise. And, again like communism on German soil, its collapse leaves behind a narrative ruin.

The love affair starts like this: in 1986, Katharina, a nineteen-year-old theater design student in East Berlin, happens to board the same crowded East Berlin bus as the fifty-something Hans, a successful author who already has a wife and child (plus a bonus girlfriend). The attraction between them is seismic. After disembarking at the same stop, they huddle under a train bridge and wait for the rain to pass, then walk wordlessly together in the same direction, pausing in front of the Hungarian Cultural Center, which is closed. Their fates are already intermingled, as Erpenbeck’s operatically sparse, ultra-close narration declares: “And he replied: Shall we have a coffee? And she said: Yes. That was all. Everything was underway, there was no other possibility.” Afterwards, they cannot resist going home together. Hans plays her his favorite tunes: Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, Mozart’s B-flat piano concerto, the Requiem—real hot stuff. They have sex and lie side by side. Their minds are already at odds, their analyses incompatible, but in the hurry of lust and fascination—and within the novel’s intimate narrative confines—they find themselves tightly bound together. “It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way, thinks Katharina.” And then they fall asleep in his marital bed, Hans on his wife’s side, and Katharina on his.

From here, the lovers fall quickly into a rhythm, each relishing the subterfuge of adultery and the heady resulting intimacy that results. Erpenbeck’s narrative style underlines the sudden proximity of Katharina and Hans by interweaving bits of dialogue and thought from both characters, often in parallel structures. “Do you feel hungry? Sure. Then let’s go eat. Sure. It feels good to be walking beside him, she thinks. It feels good to be walking beside her, he thinks.” At other moments, the lovers’ bodies are close but their minds drift apart: “She thinks, if he leaves everything to me, then he’ll see what love means. He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.” The age gap is, to both, a source of excitement. Katharina has plenty of future before her but seems unsure what she wants from it, either culturally or politically; Hans, a Hitler Youth alum who gave his life to communism in compensation, is in possession of too much past and scarcely any future at all.

With paternal confidence, Hans introduces Katharina to the world of East Berlin’s cultural elite. He lectures her about Hanns Eisler’s Brecht adaptations, shows off the marvels of Moscow, and delivers her a whole obscure syllabus of semi-official socialist state culture. He wines and dines her at the bohemian restaurant Ganymede and introduces her to famous friends, including the great post-Brechtian playwright Heiner Müller. Katharina reads Hans’s novels and hears his voice on state radio. Kairos conjures his social world in painstaking detail. To anglophone readers whose sense of the GDR comes from nightmarish one-tone kitsch, this insight into a lost cultural scene is one of the novel’s most interesting features. But despite Erpenbeck’s dedication to recording this socialist milieu for posterity—a dedication tinged, perhaps, with longing—the novel treats the whole thing as always-already fallen and unrecoverable.

There’s also a limit to the wistful appeal of an environment that is introduced to readers, along with Katharina, from the obsolete perspective of a horny old ex-Nazi with a predilection for dominating younger women. Indeed: Hans exposes his teenaged mistress not only to the peak cultural achievements of German socialism but also to BDSM. At first, it is all playful—and consensual—enough, wrapped up in their odd communist learning sessions and in the frisson of generational difference. (“The kid has optimism for two, she needs to, and she sweeps him along . . . she uses B for belt in her diary on those days.”) If Christian Grey is the S&M sex symbol of authoritative capitalist patriarchy, then Hans might be his late-communist equivalent—call this Fifty Shades of Red. His tastes are singular indeed: instead of buff excitements, post-fascist melancholy; instead of the boardroom, Cafe Moskau. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but Hanns Eisler’s Lenin (Requiem) excites me.

Yet the erotic novelty in Kairos wears off very quickly. Control games give way to controlling behavior. When Katharina has a brief sexual liaison with a man her own age, Hans—who, remember, had a wife and another girlfriend when they met—seizes on it as their relationship’s defining betrayal, the root cause of anything that goes wrong between them. He demands access to his lover’s whole self, determined to conduct a “thorough inspection of the wreckage.” Katharina complies, so off he goes, reading her diaries to compile self-serving accounts of past events and grand theories about her moral inadequacy. Eventually, Hans begins sending her long audio cassettes on which he documents her alleged faults and misdemeanors. These abusive, repetition-compulsive cassettes begin to dominate the fabric of the text, in which they reappear, transcribed. A series of grueling scenes depict Katharina listening, diligently taking notes like a schoolchild. “With her headphones on,” Erpenbeck writes, “she feels all alone in the world. With her headphones over her ears, she is locked into a world from which there is no escaping. She is sitting down. She can’t run away, she has to stick it out. But why? She has forgotten, but she is sitting.”

If Christian Grey is the S&M sex symbol of authoritative capitalist patriarchy, then Hans might be his late-communist equivalent.

As love novels go, Kairos is strikingly unbalanced. So much more, by weight, is dedicated to the affair’s grim, disturbing coda, the long phase of bitterness, manipulation, and—infuriatingly—nostalgia that follows a few short months of covert bliss. Erpenbeck surely knows that this is wearying, a serious demand on the patience of her readers. One suspects that, like making Hans our Virgil for the Ganymede scene, it’s another of her narrative tricks against nostalgia. It is likely a claim about the GDR, as well—that East Germany’s brief utopian movement, its brilliant and somewhat legitimate founding mythology, was greatly outweighed by interminable stretches of moral and political decay. Hans’s behavior suggestively mirrors that of the GDR regime, being briefly charming before his domineering, accusatory, ideological side takes over. He, like the Party, is a vigorous believer but not much of a listener.

It is not only that he puts Katharina through a distinctly Stasi-esque wringer, or that he proves a tyrant over her self-understanding as well as her body. It is that he is obsessed with her youth: loves it, hates it, envies it, and fetishizes it; his goal is to possess it for himself. Likewise, the GDR’s ruling party constantly feted young people in public, giving students and youth groups major symbolic roles in official celebrations and parades while, especially from the 1960s on, steadfastly refusing the lifestyle preferences and reformist energies of younger socialists within the country, standing against Gorbachev’s eleventh-hour calls to save European communism by liberalizing trade and public life. As gerontocracies go, it would even impress the U.S. Democratic Party. East Germany’s last long-term leader, Erich Honecker, was born in 1912; its last major Stasi chief, Erich Mielke, took up his post in 1957. Ultimately the GDR’s Gründergeneration, its founding cadre of grizzled and traumatized old communists, failed disastrously to reproduce itself by cultivating and making room for another generation of true believers. By contrast, the artists, authors, and bohemians who came of age in the 1980s—people of approximately Katharina’s (and Erpenbeck’s) vintage—were collectively known as hineingeboren, or “born in,” profoundly disenchanted as they were with a socialist project they took no responsibility for creating or sustaining.

When Erpenbeck gives the pair this specific generational gulf (fifty-something and nineteen in 1986), she is playing GDR youth against GDR authority. In the long-running historical debates about what model of state power best describes the realities of East German life, historians have increasingly rejected the idea of “totalitarianism”, in which a regime—fascist or communist—exerts top-down control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives. One influential counter-model, proposed by Mary Fulbrook, uses the phrase “participatory dictatorship” to describe a regime that was indeed oppressive but also found ways to foster widespread civic involvement in all manner of state-sponsored activities, from party membership to volunteer work to culture. Most East Germans, even (especially) the critical ones, were not only victims but willfully engaged in official public life. Governing took place, by this model, in a grey zone of consent. So, too, in the love affair between the idealistic, domineering Hans and the sadly obliging Katharina—who even starts wanting his punishment. Erpenbeck narrates the late GDR years through a participatory dictatorship of two.

Still, the historical and the personal are set apart by semicolons, not colons, in a relationship of apposition rather than representativeness. Put differently, her characters are not mere allegories, but neither do they stand outside the extreme political realities they inhabit: they think about politics, they talk about politics, and they are constantly shaped by politics. Just as Katharina and Hans operate sometimes in tandem, like rowers side by side on a Viking boat, and sometimes askew, so, too, do all Erpenbeck’s characters lurch from being neatly representative stand-ins in one scene to provocatively idiosyncratic in the next. Is Hans really a figurehead for the East German state? At moments, it seems he might be. But Hans’s über-learned world is by no means a fair representation of the generally philistine SED ruling elite. His own peculiarities appear all throughout Kairos. In the novel’s final twist, Katharina discovers, years after their affair has ended, that Hans had been an informant—no massive surprise, really, considering how we have seen him seduce, manipulate, interrogate, and ideologize. (His techniques particularly resemble the Zersetzungsmaßnahmen, or “decomposition measures,” that the Stasi inflicted on the cultural opposition from the 1970s on as they pivoted from violence and intimidation towards subtler psychological methods of depressing, confusing, and socially isolating their targets.) The real revelation, for those who saw the Stasi-bomb coming, is that he quit before ever seeing Katharina on that bus, disillusioned by the state’s cultural repressiveness. With her, at least, he was acting on his own behalf.

By the time reunification begins in 1989, something has shifted irreparably in Hans and Katharina’s relationship. A degree of hopeful anarchy has entered the political sphere; meanwhile, Katharina, by no means a dissident, has begun writing her way into some kind of agency. Her notes on Hans’s tapes become more intentional than mere transcription; her marginalia grows; she roams the countryside with some young people, has a love affair with another woman, and starts a diary that she doesn’t show Hans. As the Wall falls, she seems more or less free of his spell—which is just as well because he is undergoing the kind of tailspin that proved typical of many former GDR intellectuals: his book deal got nixed, his rent has gone up six times, the socialist project is over, and the career he made in state-sponsored culture means nothing to the new regime. Years later, when Katharina is rather morosely established with a new life and a family of her own, Hans dies. The news of his death—coupled with two boxes of documents that appear in Katharina’s apartment—triggers the journey into memory that frames the whole novel. In our eternal-seeming present, East Germany and Hans are both gone. What remains is Katharina among her boxes, sifting through the debris.

Here, as throughout her career, Erpenbeck is interested in the humans and objects—idiosyncratically specific but inexorably shaped by their times—that survive across eras. Bridging discontinuities, they haul their own emotional and material baggage into a new, un-ready world. And in so doing, they refuse neat, triumphalist historical narratives, such as those that proliferated in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism in Europe: a time when the conservative German mainstream insisted on a clean break with the “totalitarian” nightmare that came before, accusing any easterner who wanted to preserve their memories of engaging in problematic, antidemocratic nostalgia. By forcing a book about German reunification into the overcoat of a love drama, Erpenbeck impedes Western triumphalism about 1989 while also dodging any longing for the East. Her intimate narration does not let us see the GDR from the condescending safety of the present but makes us close-up witnesses to a bad romance, its agony and ecstasy inextricably entwined. Into the grandiose march of liberal progress, Erpenbeck reinjects fate, chance, contingency, and commitment.

In The Sense of an Ending, literary critic Frank Kermode talked about two kinds of narrative time: chronos, the blank ongoing “passing time”; and kairos, “a point in time filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end.” Similarly, in Erpenbeck’s novel, Kairos—in the form of a minor Greek deity—represents the happy coincidence, the moment that will prove important later on. “Kairos, the god of fortunate moments, is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him,” Katharina thinks in the novel’s opening sequence. “Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is slick and hairless, nowhere to grab hold of. Was it a fortunate moment, then, when she, just nineteen, first met Hans?” But for her—and for readers—the answer is never quite clear. When things are actually happening, Erpenbeck suggests, you cannot always tell chronos from kairos. Only the passage of time is decisive. Turning points, false moves, and lost chances reveal themselves exclusively in hindsight.

“Time,” she once wrote in an essay translated by Kurt Beals, “has the power to separate us, not only from others, but also from ourselves . . . We know that time also separates us from circumstances that might have turned us into very different people.” Was it a smiling gift of Kairos, a happy coincidence, that Erpenbeck was born into the GDR—a failed communist state whose aspirations and failures, whose short life and unceremonious demise, gave her a remarkably generative literary sense for the border zones, barriers, and historical interstices that undergird our complacent present? Is it better to have believed in communism and failed, than to resign oneself eternally to neoliberal alternativelessness? Is it better to have loved and lost?

Where many eastern authors her age have turned to other themes, Erpenbeck insists on the GDR’s continual presence, a feature of her work that some in the German literary world tend to find alienating. One wonders if she might see herself in Katharina: glued to the headphones, addicted to the abusive dynamics of a long-gone communist authority. Yet, for her, holding onto the past does not mean wanting it back. If it seems that she is clutching, white-knuckled, onto the door that separates us from times gone by, trying desperately to keep it open, it is less out of love for the ruined communist project and more a refusal of the artificial caesura we draw between our end-of-history present and the terrible, difficult past.

Erpenbeck extends to historical subjects the agency of real people; she also lets the fog of history—and historical possibility—seep into the crystal-clear now. At one crucial moment of Kairos, the narrator says: “The future trails its loose ends into the present until it becomes the present, settles on one or other human flesh, and its flourishing or brazen regime abruptly begins.” If one seemingly eternal system can come crushing down before her eyes, then perhaps another one can too.