“Time is like a briar that has gotten caught in wool, you tear it out with all your strength and throw it over your shoulder.” (228)
Like the briar that’s trapped in wool this book snags you; it plays with the vagaries of time and fate and moments: the moments that are monumental, that are significant in the way things turn out and the way they might have, instead. The intermezzo pieces, the quiet moments within an opera, are the most intense reflection of the significance of time as a theme for Erpenbeck. The irony of time presented during this bridge between the acts is often the most thoughtful. The ‘what if’ questions we ask ourselves all the time are made concrete in the intermezzo.
The central character’s journey through eastern European history is compelling. As a student of this history I’ve enjoyed the way that Erpenbeck has used the fractured political history of the region to mimic the fractured life of her main character. Even knowing how the facts play out doesn’t interfere with the tension created in the different acts. Erpenbeck calls them books and there are five of them. For my mind, Erpenbeck has written a five act play that explores life through the life of one woman. It’s more than just a story, it’s a treatise on life and time and its impact on individuals and society.
However important the story of Comrade H or Frau Hoffman is, the names are dependent on the act of the play, what’s more important is what it says about humanity. Even though we follow this life throughout the novel we are kept at a distance. We don’t ‘know’ her. This doesn’t mean we don’t care but it’s more like we are watching her from a distance, like upon a stage, making this an experience, a reflection not just a story.
But saying that, the story is interesting, too. We care about the character and her relationships; we think about how she uses her time and what is gained when she gets more of it. Erpenbeck’s books are carefully crafted and beautifully translated by Susan Bernofsky.
They are well worth your time.