LET'S BEGIN WITH a shout-out to the back of the book at The Nation, which is so often the first place I hear about a translated novelist worth a look: Bolaño, Ferrante, Zambra, Evelio Rosero, Zakes Mda, and a few others, including Jenny Erpenbeck. Given how under-the-radar translated fiction is in U.S. publishing, I'm grateful that someone is on the lookout for these all-too-easily missed finds.
I was struck by the similarity of The End of Days to Kate Atkinson's best-selling Life after Life, both using the conceit of imagining a series of do-overs for someone who died in childhood, the alteration of one or another circumstance enabling her to live into adolescence, then into adulthood, and so on, finally living to a ripe old age.
Erpenbeck's novel appeared first (2012 vs. 2013), but she and Atkinson must have been working on them at roughly the same time, and Atkinson may well have never been aware of Erpenbeck's somewhat similar project--the English translation appeared in 2014.
I liked Erpenbeck's novel more, though, for whatever that's worth--it is drier, subtler, more austere, although that could just be the difference between English literary fiction and continental literary fiction generally. Then, too, the circumstances Erpenbeck's serially-reborn character has to navigate feel starker, graver. Atkinson's character has to deal with the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the Battle of Britain, which are terrible enough, but Erpenbeck's encounters pogroms, Nazism, Stalinist purges, the collapse of communism…as Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands shows us, eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century is the Job of modern history.
Nor (I would say) is there anything in Atkinson's novel to equal the poignance of a complete set of Goethe's works that we glimpse a few times in the early chapters and then once again, once we have been given time to forget about it, near the end.
The End of Days makes all the more salient what impressed me most about Life after Life, the sheer contingency of our lives, the astonishing fact that anyone survives in our precarious circumstances, our incurable vulnerability.