The Center for Fiction celebrated the art of translation by welcoming Jenny Erpenbeck (Go, Went, Gone; Visitation), one of German contemporary literature’s most distinct and powerful voices, to discuss her latest novel Kairos, translated to English by Michael Hofmann. A twisted love story set during the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic, Kairos has been described as the great post-Unification German novel. Erpenbeck was joined by Gal Beckerman, senior editor at the Atlantic and author of the book The Quiet Before, to discuss translation, the political novel, and representing a complicated history through the lens of an equally complex romance.
By Jenny Erpenbeck
Published by New Directions / W.W. Norton
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Jenny Erpenbeck (the author of Go, Went, Gone and Visitation) is an epic storyteller and arguably the most powerful voice in contemporary German literature. Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos—an unforgettably compelling masterpiece—tells the story of the romance begun in East Berlin at the end of the 1980s when nineteen-year-old Katharina meets by chance a married writer in his fifties named Hans. Their passionate yet difficult long-running affair takes place against the background of the declining GDR, through the upheavals wrought by its dissolution in 1989 and then what comes after. In her unmistakable style and with enormous sweep, Erpenbeck describes the path of two lovers, as Katharina grows up and tries to come to terms with a not always ideal romance, even as a whole world with its own ideology disappears. As the Times Literary Supplement writes: “The weight of history, the particular experiences of East and West, and the ways in which cultural and subjective memory shape individual identity has always been present in Erpenbeck’s work. She knows that no one is all bad, no state all rotten, and she masterfully captures the existential bewilderment of this period between states and ideologies.”
In the opinion of her superbly gifted translator Michael Hofmann, Kairos is the great post-Unification novel. And, as the New Republic has commented on his work as a translator: “Hofmann’s translation is invaluable—it achieves what translations are supposedly unable to do: it is at once ‘loyal’ and ‘beautiful.’”
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. New Directions publishes her books The Old Child; The Book of Words; The End of Days; Go, Went, Gone; Visitation; and Kairos, which John Powers on NPR described as “the richest portrait I’ve read of what happened to East Germans when their glumly repressive communist state was replaced overnight by a cocky, shopping-mad West Germany that instantly set about erasing the reality they knew—devaluing their money, dismantling their media, denying their values.”
Photo Credit: Wolfgang Bozic
Gal Beckerman is the senior editor for books at the Atlantic. Formerly an editor at the New York Times Book Review, he is the author of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2022. His previous book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sami Rohr Prize and was named a best book of the year by the New Yorker and the Washington Post. He has a Ph.D. in media studies from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two daughters.