An intimate and devastating story of the path of two lovers through the ruins of a relationship, set against the backdrop of a seismic period in European history. Translated from German by Michael Hofmann.

Berlin. 11 July 1986. They meet by chance on a bus. She is a young student, he is older and married. Theirs is an intense and sudden attraction, fuelled by a shared passion for music and art, and heightened by the secrecy they must maintain. But when she strays for a single night he cannot forgive her and a dangerous crack forms between them, opening up a space for cruelty, punishment and the exertion of power. And the world around them is changing too: as the GDR begins to crumble, so too do all the old certainties and the old loyalties, ushering in a new era whose great gains also involve profound loss. 

Kairos was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024, announced on April 9 2024.


 

Shortlisted
The International Booker Prize 2024
Published by
Granta Books
Publication date

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Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck

About the Author

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1967.
More about Jenny Erpenbeck
Portrait of translator and poet Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann

About the Author

Michael Hofmann is a poet, reviewer and translator.
More about Michael Hofmann

What the International Booker Prize 2024 judges said

‘An expertly braided novel about the entanglement of personal and national transformations, set amid the tumult of 1980s Berlin. Kairos unfolds around a chaotic affair between Katharina, a 19-year-old woman, and Hans, a 53-year-old writer in East Berlin. Erpenbeck’s narrative prowess lies in her ability to show how momentous personal and historical turning points intersect, presented through exquisite prose that marries depth with clarity. She masterfully refracts generation-defining political developments through the lens of a devastating relationship, thus questioning the nature of destiny and agency. Kairos is a bracing philosophical inquiry into time, choice, and the forces of history.’   

Group photo of the International Booker Prize 2024 Judges; Romesh Gunesekera, Natalie Diaz, William Kentridge, Eleanor Wachtel and Aaron Robertson.

What the critics said

John Powers, NPR:

‘Pain and pleasure do the tango in the engrossing new novel Kairos, the story of a love affair set in East Germany right before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s the latest book from the East Berlin born Jenny Erpenbeck, the 57-year-old writer and opera director who I fully expect to win the Nobel Prize sometime in the next five years. A grownup writer for grownup readers, Erpenbeck has an unsurpassed gift for showing how our ideas, passions and choices are shaped – and reshaped – by passing time and the ceaseless transformations of history.’

Charles Finch, Los Angeles Times:

‘Inasmuch as the German novel exists, however, its undisputed star in America at the moment is Jenny Erpenbeck. She’s a writer with a roving, furious, brilliant mind, and in her best-known books, including Go, Went, Gone, about a retired professor drawn into the refugee crisis, she fuses the emotional and historic in a way that suggests a new path for — well, the German novel. Now, in her severe but rewarding “Kairos,” Erpenbeck has done it again, carefully mapping the disintegration of an East German love affair onto the era just before the 1990 reunification of Germany. The book bears with it, as so startlingly few novels seem to when you encounter one that does, the absolute urgency of existential questions. Questions that encompass both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of S&M.’

Natasha Walter, the Guardian

‘Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is one of the bleakest and most beautiful novels I have ever read. On one level, it is a love story, or rather a story about the loss of love. It begins with a woman, Katharina, hearing about the death of her former lover. Boxes of his papers are delivered to her apartment, and when she finally sits down to open them the past rises before her like a pack of playing cards thrown into the air. […] Throughout these personal and political journeys, Erpenbeck never reaches for the stock phrase or the known response. While the novel is indeed bleak in its view of love and politics, spending time with Erpenbeck’s rigorous and uncompromising imagination is invigorating all the way to the final page.’

Other nominated books by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone