Why Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Kairos” won 2024 International Booker Prize

Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck

By Nehru Odeh

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, “Kairos”, has won the 2024 International Booker Prize. The book was translated by Michael Hofmann. By achieving this feat, “Kairos” became the first book translated from German to win the prestigious prize. The £50,000 prize is split equally between author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Michael Hofmann, giving each equal recognition.

Eleanor Wachtel, Chair of the 2024 judges, announced at a ceremony at London’s Tate Modern. The ceremony was sponsored by Maison Valentino and hosted by academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari.

Erpenbeck’s novel, which was originally written in German, follows a destructive affair between a young woman and an older man in 1980s East Berlin. 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.

Eleanor Wachtel, Chair of the International Booker Prize 2024 judges, gave the reason the book won: ‘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.’

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.

Michael Hofmann, for his part, 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.

The 2024 International Booker Prize judges; William Kentridge, Natalie Diaz, Eleanor Wachtel, Aaron Robertson and Romesh Gunesekera. © Hugo Glendinning said:

“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.”

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