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

Synopsis

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

Hans

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 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. 

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 is the author of The Old Child & 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). as well as Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections (2020). Her work is translated into over thirty languages.

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.’

What the International Booker Prize 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; William Kentridge, Natalie Diaz, Eleanor Wachtel, Romesh Gunesekera and Aaron Robertson.

What the author 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

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?

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