Jenny Erpenbeck and Michael Hofmann’s victory with their novel about a toxic love affair set against a crumbling political system marks a first for German literature – and was celebrated far beyond the novel’s borders

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

The skies opened on the afternoon of 21 May in London, just ahead of the International Booker Prize 2024 ceremony, this year sponsored by Maison Valentino. The event was at Tate Modern, home to the world’s most exciting contemporary art – a fitting location. The cavernous industrial space offered a welcome reprieve from the evening’s downpour for over 200 guests who hailed from across the cultural sector.

Hosted by academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari, the event celebrated the six shortlisted novels through a series of speeches, screenings, and readings, with highlights shared with viewers across the world via a livestream on the Booker Prizes’ YouTube channel, hosted by ‘the internet’s resident librarian’ Jack Edwards

As the clock struck 10pm, Chair of the 2024 judges Eleanor Wachtel declared Kairos, written by Jenny Erpenbeck and translated from German by Michael Hofmann, the winner. The £50,000 prize is split equally between Erpenbeck and Hofmann, giving each equal recognition. 


The novel follows a destructive affair between a young woman and an older man in 1980s East Berlin. It draws parallels between their own lives and the state, 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.

‘It starts with love and passion, but it’s at least as much about power, art and culture,’ said Wachtel, during her speech, of the novel she called ‘both beautiful and uncomfortable, personal and political’. 

Following the win, livestream host Edwards discussed the result and the judges’ decision, with Bookstagramer Bernie Lombardi. ‘It had the wow factor,’ said Lombardi. Edwards was quick to agree. ‘Such a special book – this one made me fall in love with literature all over again,’ he said. 

The novel, which is the first German title to win the prize and the first with a male translator at its helm, beat the bookmakers’ odds on where it placed last of the six, with a 15/2 chance of a win. These firsts were noted and celebrated in the press far beyond the novel’s home. 

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Fans of the book were also quick to applaud both Erpenbeck and Hofmann on their achievements. On Instagram, actor Sarah Jessia Parker, known to Sex and the City fans as Carrie Bradshaw, congratulated the winners and expressed her enthusiasm for the prize. ‘I wait for this day every year,’ she said. Over on X, Carnegie medal-winning author Patrick Ness, writer of the bestseller A Monster Calls, said ‘Jenny Erpenbeck is the most incredible writer’. Miguel Berger, German Ambassador to the UK, called Kairos an ‘amazing book’. 

On the Booker Prize Book Club, a Facebook group comprised of 19,000 Booker enthusiasts, readers were quick to discuss the win and reflect on their own reading experience of the novel. ‘The themes and intensity meant I had to put it down at times and step away for a while which I believe is evidence of a good book,’ said Katherine Boyer. 

‘I’m a political junkie, so love how the abusive relationship mirrors the decay and decline of a government,’ wrote Betsy Caillouet. Anthony Pearce said the book was ‘a very worthy winner’ while noting the nature of Hans and Katharina’s relationship was ‘uncomfortable’ – but emphasised ‘that was the point’. 

The 34-year age gap within the relationship at the heart of Kairos has polarised readers (‘an absurd love story between two rather despicable characters with very questionable behaviours,’ writes one review on Good Reads, with others echoing this sentiment), yet the author has been keen for readers to look beyond this detail. 

‘The age difference is not the point,’ said Erpenbeck, in a 2023 interview with LitHub. ‘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.’

Erpenbeck grew up in the GDR and was 22 at the time the Berlin Wall fell. ‘It was high time to tell my and my friends’ stories. Many friends were kind of relieved, they had the feeling that they were seen,’ the author said, comparing the novel to a ‘museum’ dedicated to the GDR, when speaking to the Guardian the morning after the ceremony. 

Kairos follows last year’s International Booker Prize winner, Time Shelter, written by Georgi Gospodinov and translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, in being set during and after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. Following its 2023 win, Time Shelter saw a 435% increase in sales compared to the previous week, and has since gone on to sell 92,000 copies. 

Author Georgi Gospodinov with translator Angela Rodel after winning the International Booker Prize 2023

And the buzz around Kairos’s win is quickly producing a similar knock-on effect. The afternoon after its victory, the novel had sold out entirely on Amazon in Erpenbeck’s homeland. In the UK, it jumped into Amazon’s Movers and Shakers chart (which illustrates the biggest gains in sales rank over the past 24 hours) climbing 29,300%, while hitting the number two spot in the political fiction list.

Still, all this has taken the German literary world by surprise. Despite Erpenbeck’s work being translated into over 30 languages, Kairos failed to make the shortlists for Germany’s biggest literary prizes (‘They are kind of panicking,’ she told the Guardian). Suddenly, the book’s title – derived from the ancient Greek word meaning an opportune time – seems all too fitting, given the success Erpenbeck and Hofmann are now enjoying.