Achtung, baby: Is Jenny Erpenbeck's tale of doomed romance the new Great German Novel?

It feels a little strange to talk about the modern German novel as an idea. Two world wars, genocide, a new surveillance state: as German identity has been riven again and again by historical events in the last century, what continuities can we expect from its fiction? Perhaps fittingly, the greatest novelist in the language during the peak of the Modernist novel wasn’t German at all: Kafka.

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.

“Kairos” is the story of a Berlin couple — Hans in his late 50s and Katharina in her late teens by the time they fall in love. An equivalent American novel would likely be about this age gap; to whatever extent Erpenbeck may be interested in the subject, she scarcely mentions it, instead treating the love affair with the deadly seriousness that both of its participants do. This credulity suggests the story may be autobiographical, as does Katharina’s job working in a theater around the end of East Germany, something Erpenbeck also did. (Her essay on that time, “Homesick for Sadness,” is worth seeking out.)

Hans is married, but he is in love with Katharina (as I can hear them both insisting to me) and behaves like a teenager, both in his passion and in his bullying jealousy. As for Katharina, she imprints on Hans so deeply that even late in the novel, after they’ve had difficulties, she can still think, “Like a chestnut and its hull, so close does she feel to Hans … one a complement of the other, one the original of the other.”

Erpenbeck writes “Kairos” in a skillfully volleying point of view that subsumes the perspectives of both its leads. It’s a way of showing their love dynamically, not as he-said, she-said, or he-thought, she-thought, but they-felt — a hybrid consciousness. “Two bodies lie stretched out side by side in the dark. It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way, thinks Katharina.” The problem is that the chestnut and its hull are different, as this line shows. This lingering gap between two people who want to find all of life’s meaning in each other is the book’s tragedy.

For long stretches, “Kairos” is an impressive but claustrophobic love story. Then, however, the slow irruption of history into Hans and Katharina’s lives gives Erpenbeck the chance to introduce the larger ideas she’s writing for: dissolution, union, the limits of human connection. Like Hans, she seems hugely invested in the “tired old state” of the DDR. (“Someone put in a request for a telephone twenty-five years ago,” the book notes dryly at one point.)

Through this lens, Hans is parallel to the socialist state — “first they were all young,” he recalls of the birth of the new East Germany, “then they had babies together, married, separated, fell in love, became enemies, friends, plotted or practiced withdrawal” — while Katharina, young and in love but uncertain, embodies a new generation that can love the East and covet the West simultaneously.

But any definitive reading of “Kairos” in those terms would be reductive. In truth, the book's central character is neither of the rather thinly drawn leads, but Erpenbeck’s mind, which patrols the borders of bourgeois assumption like a crossing agent, invoking Hölderlin, Gorky, Bukharin, Mozart and Brecht, wrestling with love and time. The book’s setting 30-odd years ago comes to dovetail with that age gap’s built-in sense of evanescence. “Today and tomorrow, and then she’ll be gone,” Hans thinks. “Then the thing that today still passes for ‘now’ will be over.”

Above all, Erpenbeck’s books are filled with Germany. History is everywhere there, she tells us — strewn recklessly and jaggedly around, like the glass in an Anselm Kiefer. All countries have tragedies, but Germany seems almost designed to produce them, and as the nation-state dissolves into a world state of technology, perhaps we will grow to wonder at the pain it inflicted on us. As Erpenbeck writes of Katharina, in a remarkable passage that illuminates the beautiful fatalism of this difficult and interesting book, “She cannot remember a time in her life when she didn’t know that in Germany, death is not the end of everything but the beginning … there is no other walking, ever, for a German, than over skulls, eyes, mouths, and skeletons.”

Finch’s novels include the Charles Lenox mysteries.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.