At the core of Jenny Erpenbeck’s lyrically moving novel is a fabulist’s premise: lives forestalled or catapulted forward based on adjusting their endings. In Austro-Hungarian Galicia circa 1900 a baby girl is born to a Jewish mother and a “goy” father, a civil servant. The baby girl dies, alas, and the crestfallen father flees to America, the mother descending into vagrant prostitution. But wait, what if the infant hadn’t died, revived instead by a handful of snow? Maybe she would have grown into teenager with a sister in Vienna as the Kaiser went to war. Only to die “again,” shot by madman. Or have circumvented the madman and gone on to live into the abject poverty of the Vienna postwar, only to contract Spanish Flu. Or have dodged both gunshot and flu and, enthralled by Lenin and 1917, became a loyal Communist, eventually accompanying her husband to Moscow and becoming writer. What then? Arrest? Imprisonment? Chance survival through a second war but little further? Or might there be even further progress, this time projected to 1950, with a son in East Berlin, or further still into a 21st-century nursing home at age 90?
Each of these scenarios gets Erpenbeck’s tender, metaphoric attention, as do the vicissitudes of anti-Semitism, two wars and their aftermath (“Less than a human lifetime for homeland and origins to diverge.”) The whole of 20th-century history and its “hierarchy of worth,” is made into a hardscrabble lullaby and summed up by these many possible lives, the details of each one representing the adjustments and realigning of culture itself. “Time is a porridge made of time.”
It’s an ambitious premise, a tone poem of sorts, one that runs out of steam only when one-time East Berliner Erpenbeck — an opera director as well as an author — pauses to dwell lengthily and at times didactically on the terrifying but arcane details of insider Communist persecution, a felt subject in the context of German unification.
This is a novel of humanity, idealism and ideas in the manner of memory-muse W.G. Sebald. “Who decides,” she asks, “what thoughts time will be filled with?” Erpenbeck can’t possibly flesh out so many life fugues, but she does come remarkably close to delivering a quilted whole — a marvel in itself.