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Booker winner Jenny Erpenbeck: An East German perspective

Booker winner Jenny Erpenbeck: An East German perspective


, Wednesday, 22 May 2024 (15:50 IST)
Ask your average German about Jenny Erpenbeck, and they may very well respond, "Jenny who?"
Yet the contemporary German author has made a name for herself beyond Germany's borders; she's showered with prizes and has even been predicted to one day win the Nobel Prize in literature. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and she's read to thrilled audiences in Uzbekistan, Mexico and India during her global book tours.
So why the discrepancy? 
It's not as if Erpenbeck is totally unknown in Germany — quite the contrary. She has a loyal readership, and she can usually count on one literary prize a year, earning her media mentions. 
Her 2021 novel, "Kairos," has also received different awards — just no major Germans one, like the German Book Prize or the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Yet, in keeping with the pattern, the novel's English translation has garnered acclaim beyond Germany's borders, earning her, and her translator Michael Hofmann, the prestigious International Booker Prize .
'East German' problems 
Perhaps there is something to Erpenbeck's feeling that the wall that once separated East and West Germany never really fell, that West German cultural perspectives continue to dominate public discourse. 
Erpenbeck is from the former East Germany. Born in East Berlin in 1967, she was 22 when the Berlin Wall came down. The state in which she had grown up, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), simply ceased to exist shortly thereafter, and she found herself in a new country, the Federal Republic of Germany, which wasn't really interested in the history of the GDR.
"Kairos" addresses the end of the GDR. In an interview with the German weekly magazine Die Zeit, Erpenbeck said it was no coincidence that the novel didn't garner much attention within Germany, since not a single East German-born individual sat on the juries of the major German book prizes the year the novel came out.
"I'm not interested in your problems either," she said in the interview with the Hamburg-based publication, whose roots lie in West Germany.
End of the world as we know it 
"Kairos" is about life's turmoil. It's a toxic love story set during the final days of the GDR. The lovers: a young woman and a man 34 years her senior — a former fascist in Nazi Germany turned zealous communist. It's also the story of artists in the GDR — a state with omnipresent censorship that required critique to be subtle and well-hidden.
"Kairos" tells of people experiencing the transition from a communist-socialist regime to a free-market state — an earthquake that fundamentally shakes how they see themselves. The lovers' breakup captures the instability they face as their world crumbles.
Erpenbeck powerfully captures the end of the GDR; she knows what it felt like. In a 2018 essay for the German women's magazine Emma, she wrote, "Freedom wasn't gifted. It had a price, and the price was my previous life. The price was that which had just been called the present now was called the past [...] From here on out, my childhold belonged in a museum." 

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