New Directions. Jun. 2023. 336p. tr. from German by Michael Hofmann. ISBN 9780811229340. $25.95. F
Born in East Germany and now residing in Berlin, the multi-award-winning Erpenbeck (Go, West, Gone) turns in another major work rooted in the chaotic love affair between 19-year-old Katharina and Hans, a married writer 34 years her senior. She’s sunflower-bright, he’s brilliant and controlling, and though initially he insists that they meet only occasionally, they cannot keep away from each other. Related through two boxes’ worth of diaries, letters, and tapes that Katharina mysteriously receives much later, their relationship cycles through ups and downs that are vividly rendered—at one point, Hans venomously recriminates Katharina for a single betrayal, though he has returned to the wife who banished him. (Katharina puts up with a lot, which gets exasperating.) What makes this affair so distinctive is its unfolding primarily in late 1980s East Berlin, finally drawing to a close with the end of the German Democratic Republic itself. Throughout, the contrast between Katharina’s sense of recent German history and Hans’s longer-view socialist-idealist lessons cuts deep, and U.S. readers might have wanted to hear more. In the end, it’s unsettling to learn just how great Hans’s own deceptions were.
VERDICT Ice-pick precise and gorgeously written, if sometimes freighted too heavily with narrative, this expertly translated work offers insight into the personal and the political for astute readers.
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