A novelist's ' kind of freedom ' in East Germany. Jerney Erpenbeck became a writer when her country was swallowed by the West.

Jenny Erpenbeck, now 57, was 22 in 1989, when the Berlin Wall cracked by accident, then collapsed.

The country she knew, the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, remains a crucial setting for most of her striking, precise fiction.

Her work has grown in acuity and emotional power, combines the complications of German and Soviet history with the lives of her characters, including those of her own family members, whose experiences echo with the past like contrapuntal music.

Her latest novel to be translated into English, ''Kairos,'' has been a breakthrough. It is now on the shortlist for the International Booker Prize and considered a favorite to win the award.

Her previous novel, '' Go, Went, Gone,'' is a moving tale of a lonely East German professor, adrift in United Germany, finding parallels with the African migrants who have survived a sea journey only to find themselves adrift in Germany, as well.

In 2017, James Wood, The New Yorker's book critic, called '' Go, Went, Gone'' underappreciated and predicted that Ms. Erpenbeck would win the Nobel Prize '' in a few years.''

During an interview Ms. Erpenbeck talked about her growing up in East Germany. She said the East was largely misunderstood by West Germans - belittled, patronized and often ignored.

East Germany is too often reduced, she said, even in respected films like '' The Lives of Others,'' which was made in 2006, to the hyperbolic cliches of a totalitarian state with everyday life dominated by fear of the secret police, STASI.

In fact, she said, there was a '' kind of freedom '' in East Germany, where the ideology of equality meant less stress, competition and greed, and where there was comparatively little less to strive for in a society that had only few options for consumer goods.

'' There are some kinds of freedom that you wouldn't expect to have surrounded by a wall, but it's also a freedom not to be forced to expose yourself and shout out all the time about how important you are and what you have reached, to sell yourself,'' she said.

'' The end of the system that I knew, that I grew up in - this made me write,'' she said. The rapidity of the change taught her '' how fragile systems are,'' she said.

'' It leaves you with a deep distrust in all systems,'' she said.

'' Kairos '' is both compelling and upsetting ; the themes of manipulation, betrayal, degradation and cynicism are constant undertones to these deeply imagined lives. 

The novel ends with the revelation of the Stasi file of the man. Though his political commitment to socialism after the Nazi period is real, it degrades over the years as he gives in to the authoritarian state and his own selfishness.

Her own Stasi file, Ms. Erpenbeck admitted, was a great disappointment : It was only two pages, and most of it detailed a high school crush.

'' My own file is so cute, '' she said. '' I would have liked to have had a bigger and more interesting file.''

The World Students.Society thanks Stephen Erlanger.


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