Interview: Jenny Erpenbeck, Author Of 'The End Of Days' German author Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel grapples with the classic question: What if? What if one choice, one event goes differently, and the whole course of your life changes?

Imagining Lives That Might Have Happened In 'End Of Days'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is part of the human condition to wonder what if? What if you had made a different choice which then changed the course of your life? Would you be happier, more successful? Or maybe not. The writer Jenny Erpenbeck can't shake this idea - that we all have lives not lived because of the way that events transpired. Her latest novel is called "The End Of Days." And it's recently been translated from the original German into English. It's the story of a family in Eastern Europe before World War I. In the opening scene a newborn baby has died, and the mother's life takes a dark turn. But then Erpenbeck plays with time, and she imagines that the child didn't die in her infancy. In four different tellings of the child's life, she has the chance to grow into a woman. And that same woman faces the possibility of death again and again.

JENNY ERPENBECK: I am sure that anyone who already has lost someone who was very close to him or to her would wish to be able to turn the time back. So this is what I'm able to do writing a book. I can do what, in real life, you never can do. I can take the death back, and I can try another version of life.

MARTIN: Did you - have you had that experience of losing someone very close to you where you went back to a moment, and if only you could save them or create a different reality where they survived?

ERPENBECK: Just some years ago I lost my mom. I think this was the beginning of thinking about life and death in this way - that I thought if she would have died as a small girl in some village, she would never have been mourned as the person we mourned when she died. And so the thinking about the different summaries that people use to make or to draw after a death became my subject in this book.

MARTIN: You are imagining these alternative realities for your characters against some very real political events. This is taking place in Europe after World War I. Why this time period? Why did you want this story to involve unfold then?

ERPENBECK: What I tried to do was end up in my time of life. And so I had to start the story in the beginning of the 20th century. And I also followed the way of my grandmother from my father's side just concerning the places and the situations in which the main character of my book is put.

MARTIN: So you retraced your own grandmother's life and story for this book?

ERPENBECK: Not the real life of my grandmother. So she was born in Galicia. She was in Vienna. She was in Moscow. But the reason for taking it was not to tell the biography of someone but to have a life which is broke in many moments. And the biography of my grandma was so perfect. I thought it was the best to orientate on this.

MARTIN: This is a book not just about time but also place. You mark moments with very specific latitude and longitude coordinates. But then there are some details that aren't there - details we might take for granted in literature, like the names of characters. These characters do not have names. Why did you decide to keep that ambiguous?

ERPENBECK: I think if you are a good reader, you can follow easily the story without having any names because there's a father, mother, daughter, whatever. And they grow. And then they will change the names because the mother becomes a grandmother and so on. The child becomes a mother herself and so on and so on. And I like the idea that such persons are changing. It's like a metamorphosis. It's not fixed.

MARTIN: At the same time is there something you're saying universal about the experience of being the mother, the grandmother, the daughter?

ERPENBECK: Yes, of course. It's about changing while being one person because this a thing that always fascinates me a lot because you are many in one person. And by putting all those different characters and different chapters and make it a bit easier than it normally is probably.

MARTIN: Jenny Erpenbeck, her novel "The End Of Days" is now available in an English version, translated from the original German. She joined us from the BBC studios in Berlin. Jenny, thank you so much for talking with us.

ERPENBECK: Thank you.

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