Kairos, originally written in German, was the winner of the International Booker Prize 2024. A devastating story of the path of two lovers – a man in his fifties and a 19-year-old woman – through the ruins of a relationship, set against the tumult of East Berlin in the 1980s

Whether you’re new to Kairos or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published


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 

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.

The corner of Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse and Hirtonstrasse, East Berlin, 1986

The main characters


When the novel begins in 1986, Hans is in his fifties. He is a writer, married, with a teenage son. Hans grew up under Hitler’s grip on Germany, witnessing fascism take hold of his father. Hans wants ‘to prove to himself and to mankind that he would have behaved differently,’ so moved to East Berlin from the West when he turned 18 due to his lingering sense of guilt. When he meets Katharina, he is enamoured with her youth, but decides that only she has the power to decide that the relationship can continue or whether it must end. As their relationship progresses, Hans becomes increasingly abusive while exercising a degree of coercive control over Katharina. 


At the beginning of the novel, Katharina learns of her former lover’s death, and receives two cardboard boxes that contain an archive representing their relationship together. Katharina is 19 years old when she meets Hans. She was born in East Berlin under the German Democratic Republic and a divided Germany is all she has ever known. Katharina is a theatre design student who ‘had only just been born when [Hans’] first book appeared’. Despite Hans’ increasingly abusive nature towards her, she stays in the relationship because she feels she deserves the punishment he bestows upon her.

About the author

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, her novel Kairos, translated by Michael Hofmann, was longlisted for 2023’s National Book Award for Translated Literature. In May 2024, Kairos won the International Booker Prize. 

Portrait of author Jenny Erpenbeck.

About the translator

Michael Hofmann is a poet, reviewer and translator. He has published four books of poems, and Behind the Lines: Pieces on Writing and Pictures. His collection of essays, Where Have You Been? was published by Faber & Faber in February 2015. He has made selections of the poetry of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and, with James Lasdun, co-edited the influential anthology After Ovid. Hofmann has translated many German authors, including Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth and Hans Fallada. His translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories is published by Penguin, and he is now at work on a new translation of Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. A hitherto untranslated novel by Fallada, A Small Circus, was published in January 2012. Hofmann lives in London and Germany, and since 1993 has held a half-time teaching position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Michael’s recent translations include Kafka’s The Burrow (Penguin, 2017), and he is currently translating Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? (Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?) for Penguin.

In 2016, Faber re-issued Hofmann’s poetry collections Nights in the Iron HotelAcrimonyCorona and Approximately Nowhere. His most recent poetry collection, One Lark, One Horse, was published by Faber in 2018.

Portrait of translator and poet Michael Hofmann

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.’

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.’

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.’


What the International Booker Prize judges said

How would you summarise this book in a sentence to encourage readers to pick it up? 

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.    

Is there something unique about this book, something that you haven’t encountered in fiction before? 

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. 

What do you think it is about this book that readers will not only admire, but really love? 

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. 

Can you tell us about any particular characters that readers might connect with, and why?  

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.  

Although it’s a work of fiction, is there anything about it that’s especially relevant to issues we’re confronting in today’s world?  

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. 

Is there one specific moment in the book that has stuck in your mind and, if so, why?   

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. 

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

What the author 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.

Jenny Erpenbeck Kairos

What the translator 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.

‘Whether in music or literature, no repetition is ever the same: even if things seem identical, one experiences them differently because of what has happened in the meantime. A sense of melancholia arises because something may have broken in the meantime. One knows that things are not as they used to be, that there is a dissonance between what is now the past and what is the acute present. My stories carry inside them the mechanism of memory: the things that have hit you emotionally are always present; they’ll return again and again as constant reminders of time passing and the change that has happened, the loss. This principle of looking at something again and understanding more than previously, then looking at it again and understanding even more, and then looking at it a third time – it is always the same basic material that needs to be re-evaluated over and over again, that has to be examined from a new perspective and classified differently.’

Read the full interview in Tank Magazine.

‘We spoke German at home; I grew up bilingual in England and Scotland and the U.S. Once I stopped desiring not to be German, and began reading German books of my own volition, the way was clear, though the bilingualism – being on an easy footing with two languages, translation, as I wrote somewhere, “not a naturally occurring activity” – was a hindrance. I could then start turning myself into an open-cast mine for words. That’s an East German thing.’

Read the full interview here.

Michael Hoffman

Questions and discussion points

As much as Kairos is a novel about a deeply personal love affair between two people, it also documents the political history of a country in turmoil. Erpenbeck grew up in East Germany, close to the Berlin Wall, and was 22 at the time of its fall. To what extent is it fair to call the novel an allegory for the reunification of Germany, and if so, what sense did you get of the political reality of the time?

Kairos is written in the present tense, which can seem unusual as historical fiction is often written in the past tense. Why do you think the author chose to write this story in particular in this manner? How does it serve the narrative of Kairos and what effect did it have on you as a reader, both initially and as you progressed through the novel?

Erpenbeck also shifts perspective throughout the novel, oscillating between that of Katharina and Hans. She does this frequently, sometimes within the same sentence and with no signalling to the reader that a shift has occurred. What effect does this technique of duality have on the text? 

The body of the novel is the story of Hans and Katharina’s relationship, which could be deemed unconventional due to the substantial age gap between the two. Yet the author draws little attention to this, nor does she condemn Hans for his abuse towards Katharina or any of the relationship’s more toxic elements such as the power imbalance. Discuss the benefits of this neutrality within the narrative. 

Mirroring and symmetry reoccur throughout the novel: ‘They lie so close that when one turns, the other turns too,’ Erpenbeck writes of Hans and Katharina. The novel itself is also structured in a symmetrical manner, while much of it documents the political history of East and West Germany, two halves of a whole. What is the deeper meaning, and purpose, of these motifs that Erpenbeck has embedded throughout?

Hans and Katharina’s relationship seemingly begins as one of equality. Yet early in their relationship, Hans suggests ‘it’s important that he sets some conditions, before it’s too late,’ and mentions that in the future, he will ‘hand [Katharina] on’. Discuss what these glimmers offer the reader, and whether Hans’s potential for abuse is always apparent. 

How do Hans’s childhood experiences, particularly witnessing the grip of fascism within his family, influence his behaviour and relationships throughout the novel? Consider how his upbringing, under the Nazis, contributes to behavioural patterns of dominance and control, and the implications it has on his adult relationships. 

Hans and Katharina’s relationship ends while the Berlin Wall falls. What parallels does Erpendeck draw between the two? Discuss whether the author positions either of these conclusions as wholly good or bad. Is Erpendeck asking us to consider the grey areas between the two? 

In an interview with American novelist Claire Messud, Erpendeck states that she intended to create ‘a museum’ through Kairos. The novel reflects on the art, the objects, the brands and ideas of a waning GDR. To what extent does she encapsulate this period, and location, in the pages of Kairos? What aspects of life in East Berlin are highlighted, and how are they contrasted with the post-unification era?

Many readers have commented on the detached style of the novel. Erpendeck writes purposefully, observing while remaining staunchly uninvolved. How does this style serve the reading experience, and bring to life the relationship between the two protagonists?

International Booker Prize

If you enjoyed this book why not try

While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky

The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf

Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990 by Katja Hoye