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"Kairos, the god of fortunate moments, is supposed to have a lock of hair on his forehead, which is the only way of grasping hold of him. Because once the god has slipped past on his winged feet, the back of his head is sleek and hairless, nowhere to grab hold of."

So was it a "fortunate moment," Katharina wonders in a new novel named for Kairos, when she met Hans? The question is prompted by Hans' death, many years later, and by the boxes of his memorabilia that soon appear at her door.

A long time ago Hans' papers and her own, stowed in a suitcase on a dusty library shelf, "were speaking to each other. Now they're both speaking to time." As they are to us, in Jenny Erpenbeck's "Kairos," translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.

Erpenbeck, like Katharina, was a young woman living in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, and the story she tells in "Kairos" reflects the disorienting experience the novelist once described in a speech as "a past which might best be left behind in that winter darkness, trampled into the mud."

From the boxes' contents — "letters and carbons of letters, scribbled notes, shopping lists, desk diaries, photo prints and negatives, postcards, collages, a few newspaper clippings" — the story of an affair unfolds, beginning in 1986 with Katharina's chance encounter with Hans, a distinguished writer who is married and 34 years her senior.

What is past, what is present, and what persists are questions that haunt "Kairos," a novel concerned with continuity in politics and culture but also with passion and character. The lovers quickly go from mirroring one another ("It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way, thinks Katharina.") to becoming virtually indistinguishable: "Every single day, Katharina realizes that she and Hans have long since ceased to be two separate beings, they are completely and utterly one."

Theirs is a passion more stated than evoked, the "oneness" clearly out of whack because of the vast difference in age and status. It is after Hans first whips her with his belt that Katharina, thinking, "Only now ... do I truly know him," says, "I could imagine having a baby with you?" To which the sophisticated reader can only say: "Ick."

Politics, already present in references to exiled writers, discredited politicians and the tricky logistics of a cross-border visit, figure increasingly in the story — as borders loosen and the Eastern Bloc liberalizes, as "freedom" from the familiar security of the socialist state overtakes these characters and "Coca-Cola has succeeded, where Marxist philosophy has failed, at uniting the proletarians of all nations under its banner."

Erpenbeck's spare style, seamlessly blending dialogue, thought, narrative and allusions to German culture, echoes the ideas that animate "Kairos," and occasionally the disorientation at its core. She leaves a reader to ponder one character's observation that truth "needs to be very well engineered if it is to be effective." Does it? And, in "Kairos," is it?


By: Jenny Erpenbeck.

Publisher: New Directions, 328 pages, $25.95