As Kairos becomes the first book translated from German to win the International Booker Prize, here’s everything you need to know about the novel

Publication date and time: Published

Why did Kairos win?

Eleanor Wachtel, Chair of the International Booker Prize 2024 judges said:

‘In luminous prose, Jenny Erpenbeck exposes the complexity of a relationship between a young student and a much older writer, tracking the daily tensions and reversals that mark their intimacy, staying close to the apartments, cafés, and city streets, workplaces and foods of East Berlin. It starts with love and passion, but it’s at least as much about power, art and culture. The self-absorption of the lovers, their descent into a destructive vortex, remains connected to the larger history of East Germany during this period, often meeting history at odd angles. 

Michael Hofmann’s translation captures the eloquence and eccentricities of Erpenbeck’s writing, the rhythm of its run-on sentences, the expanse of her emotional vocabulary. 

What makes Kairos so unusual is that it is both beautiful and uncomfortable, personal and political. Erpenbeck invites you to make the connection between these generation-defining political developments and a devastating, even brutal love affair, questioning the nature of destiny and agency. Like the GDR, it starts with optimism and trust, then unravels.’

Portrait of Eleanor Wachtel.

What is Kairos about?

Kairos is 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. It intertwines the personal and the political as the two lovers seemingly embody East Germany’s crushed idealism, with both holding on to the past long after they know they should move on. A meditation on hope and disappointment, Kairos poses complex questions about freedom, loyalty, love and power.

In East Berlin in 1986, a man and a woman meet by chance on a bus. She is a young student, he is older and married. Theirs is an intense and sudden attraction, and they embark on an affair 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.

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.

Who are the author and translator?

The author: Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, and is an opera director, playwright and award-winning novelist. 

She first trained as a bookbinder, then worked as a theatre props manager before studying musical theatre direction and enjoying a successful career as an opera director from the late 1990s. She published her debut novella, Geschichte vom alten Kind, in 1999. Susan Bernofsky’s English translation, The Old Child, was published in 2005. Erpenbeck’s other translated works include The Book of Words (2008), Visitation (2010) and The End of Days (2014, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), and Go, Went, Gone (2017, which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2018) as well as Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections (2020). Her work has been translated into over 30 languages, and it has been said that she is better known overseas than in her native Germany. In 2019 her novel Visitation was named one of the 100 best books of the 21st century by the Guardian.

In the United States, Kairos was longlisted for 2023’s National Book Award for Translated Literature.

The translator: Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann is a poet, reviewer and translator. He has translated several German authors, including Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada. He is the winner of several literary prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995 for the translation of his father’s novel, The Film Explainer. Since 1993 he has held a part-time teaching position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He was a judge for the International Booker Prize in 2018, the year Jenny Erpenbeck was first longlisted for the prize. In 2023, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


What else have the International Booker judges said about Kairos?

Kairos is a richly textured evocation of a tormented love affair in the dying years of East Germany. In luminous prose, Erpenbeck fully exposes the complexity of the passionate connection between a 19-year-old student and a much older writer.

‘Kairos is uncomfortable and complex. It’s about the weight of history and how it impinges on our lives. It starts with love and passion, but it’s at least as much about power, art and culture, a different kind of obsession. 

‘In fluid, musical sentences, Erpenbeck brings the reader close to her characters and to the fraught demands they face. These are dramas of the body as much as moral and political dilemmas, all brought to a crisis point. 

‘Though the novel follows two sensibilities throughout, this is Katharina’s story. We follow her as she descends into a self-destructive vortex and then re-emerges, all the while remaining connected to the larger history of East Germany during the last three years of the 1980s.  

The novel allows the reader to become intimate with East Berlin just before the fall of the Wall, the apartments, cafés, and city streets, workplaces and foods of the city that is now gone. It also evokes the difficult moral choices of the time and the losses that came with the seismic political transformation. 

‘Not a moment but a sensibility: Katharina is as much in love with art as she is with Hans. The discussions of music, poetry and theatre illuminate the book throughout.’

Read more here. 

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

What have the author and translator said about the book?

Jenny Erpenbeck said: 

It’s a private story of a big love and its decay, but it’s also a story of the dissolution of a whole political system. Simply put: How can something that seems right in the beginning, turn into something wrong? This transition interested me. It has a lot to do with language – since language is made to express feelings and visions as much as to hide or betray them. It can reveal something interior, and yet mislead people, or it can just be a blank surface. If you look at the details of what is spoken and where there’s silence instead, you’ll also be able to follow the invisible currents, the shifting power between generations, the techniques of manipulation and abuse.     

Read the full interview here.

Michael Hofmann said: 

‘The age difference is not the point. The point is the character. Even if Katharina could have met a version of Hans when he was 20 years younger, he would have been the same character. The character is what matters—if someone is manipulating, or hiding a big part of his life. An older man looks at a young woman with a certain kind of pleasure? This is normal. You admire beauty. You are happy to look at some young person, man or woman, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a crime. Only if you use your experience to manipulate someone, like Hans does with Katharina.’

Read the full interview in LitHub.

What have the critics said?

Dwight Garner, NY Times:

‘If “Kairos” were only a tear-jerker, there might not be much more to say about it. But Erpenbeck, a German writer born in 1967 whose work has come sharply to the attention of English-language readers over the past decade, is among the most sophisticated and powerful novelists we have.

Clinging to the undercarriage of her sentences, like fugitives, are intimations of Germany’s politics, history and cultural memory. It’s no surprise that she is already bruited as a future Nobelist. Her work has attracted star translators, first Susan Bernofsky and now the poet and critic Michael Hofmann.’

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.’

Adam Begley, the Spectator

‘It’s easy to read Kairos as an allegory, the doomed love affair analogous to the fate of East Germany and the ruin of its socialist experiment, its idealism corrupted by the rigid control of its citizens. But the two questions, uttered in one breath, merit separate answers. A strict allegorical reading can’t do justice to Erpenbeck’s subtle, richly layered, densely allusive and hugely ambitious novel.’