Eirpenbeck: The best thing about the GDR is hope

Central to Erpenbeck’s novel is the relationship between the writer Hans, a married man in his fifties, and the nineteen-year-old student Katharina. The two meet by chance in East Berlin three years before the fall of the Wall and fall in love instantly. Erpenbeck explains that the book’s title, “kairos,” is the ancient Greek word for “a happy moment that never returns.” The novel shows how the relationship between Katarina and Hans becomes increasingly unhealthy as the end of the German Democratic Republic approaches and how different generations deal with the demise of the East German regime.

Jenny Erbenbeck, who grew up in East Berlin, still thinks it’s worth considering why the GDR failed. After the fall of the wall, this also prompted her to start writing. With her novel “Kairos” she wanted to show that people in East Germany also lived a very normal life: “We went to concerts, learned Greek and Latin, and made jokes about the Stasi.” These experiences are a big part of the history of the GDR, which is why the writer wanted to record them: “I am writing a book as a museum of my memories.”

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck was published in August 2021 by Penguin Verlag. The novel was widely praised by critics. The book won this year’s Uwe-Johnson Award. The Dutch translation of Elly Schippers will be published soon.

In January 1990, Erpenbeck realized that the East German regime would not last much longer. From that moment on, the clerk began collecting typical GDR product packaging. purely intended to keep alive the memories of her childhood years in East Germany. She jokingly calls this collection a “museum”.

“I write a book as a museum of my memories”

The museum metaphor is a recurring theme. Erpenbeck is fascinated by the question of when things end up in a museum: “Something ends up in a museum when it’s not used in the real world.” This, as you say, is a gray area. The writer links to the abolition of the GDR: “From one day to the next, the things we use every day in the GDR became eligible as museum items. That was a crazy thing.” Erpenbeck describes German unification as an alienating experience: “It is strange to witness that the system in which I grew up was abolished at one stroke. We East Germans had to learn everything anew.”

“Hardly anyone wants the GDR back as it was. However, you can miss out on certain GDR things, not necessarily because they were so good, but because you’ve been used to it all your life.” Erpenbeck believed that GDR society could certainly be improved, but growing up in the communist country not only had its downsides: “Everything was centrally arranged, we never had to think about money and we could study for free.” The best thing about the GDR was the hope that We had yet turn I would love to go back.”

“West Germans don’t want an East Germany in their living room”

In the way East German literature is received, Erpenbeck notes clear differences between West and East Germany: “People in the East are always very happy when a new book is published about their former country. In the West I sometimes feel that the majority of people think: There is another writer from East German wrote a book about everything that was bad in the GDR. Consequently, “Kairos” sells less well in readings in the West. Erpenbeck’s statement: “Western Germans don’t want an East Germany in their living room.”

Jenny Erpenbeck visited the University of Utrecht on November 23 at the invitation of Stichting C+K. This cultural institution annually invites four German-speaking authors to go on a book tour of several Dutch colleges and universities.

During previous lectures in the Netherlands, the author has noted that the view of the GDR is different here than in West Germany: “In general, Dutch readers understand the situation of people in the GDR better than West German readers, who often feel somewhat attacked. What and they struggle – although they are not responsible for it – with guilt after the fall of the wall, many institutions in East Germany were dismantled. Of course, the Dutch are not bothered by this. “

For example, we will not easily call Kohl or Merkel our chancellor.

To this day, her generation doesn’t really feel German, Erbenbeck says. “For example, we will not easily call Kohl or Merkel our chancellor.” Moreover, many people are still ashamed of their East German roots: “Some East Germans who moved to the West after the fall of the Wall never admit they come from the former GDR.”

The writer should think carefully about the lesson Erbenbeck hopes readers will learn from Kairos. In the end she replied: “I hope – and this has nothing to do with the GDR – that the book will make young people in particular sensitive to the manipulation techniques used by men – and, of course, women – so that Psychological horror (mental violence) immediately set off alarm bells. Then he stays quiet for a while. Finally, Erbenbeck says, “And I hope the book teaches us to be vigilant. Until you immediately notice the emergence of political structures where lies are used to stay in power, and then have the courage to demand change. This is especially important in the era of the emperor’s new clothes.”

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