‘Will she and Hans be together in a year? Will her country even exist?’

The newest winner of the International Booker Prize, Kairos by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck and translated by Michael Hofmann (who is often considered one of the greatest translators alive), is as astounding as it is heartbreaking. Kairos rarely featured as a fan favourite for this year’s winner, which makes me wonder about how equally superb the rest of the shortlist must be.

Spanning the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Kairos is set against the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. Named after the Greek deity of luck and favourable moments who is silky smooth all over, the deity can only be grasped by a coarse lock of his hair. He is elusive and only the most blessed among us can find him. Katharina, 19, and Hans, 53, consider themselves two such people. They meet by chance on July 11, 1986. Wasting no time, they go for coffee and in a few days they are both completely enamoured by each other. So much so, that every week of togetherness is worthy of celebration.

The good, the bad

Hans is married and the father of a teenage boy while Katharina is just setting out in life. Each is overwhelmed in their own way. Hans believes it is his final shot at happiness while Katharina believes this is what true love looks like. The difference in age and circumstances between the two – there’s a particularly funny scene where Katharina tells her father that her lover is ten years older than him – is most sorely realised in their inner monologues. Hans thinks to himself, “it will never be like this again” when at the same time Katharina thinks to herself, “it will always be this way.” For what it’s worth, they are happy together. The sex starts tenderly – bottoms are compared to peaches and Mozart plays in the background – and as familiarity and possessiveness set in, Hans’s taste turns violent. He pulls out whips and ties, and what was perhaps a gentle romance suddenly begins to feel stifling.

Katharina, too young to have experienced history, is fascinated by borders. Her trip to Cologne in West Germany for her grandmother’s 70th birthday proves to be a strange experience – suddenly her money holds different values, the people seem to talk and behave differently, and the politics of the land is completely different. Hans is old enough to have served Hitler – a fact that barely figures into their relationship. The Wall exists and yet the border is porous – Katharina observes how the Western air mingles with the Socialist weather.

As the politics of the Wall becomes stranger and more encompassing, so does her relationship with Hans. There’s the smell of freedom in the air and Katharina, swept away by forces unknown, transgresses with her coworker Vadim.

It happens only once. And that is all it takes. Unable to bear the betrayal – the irony not lost on the reader – Hans subjects Katharina to extreme guilt and emotional torment. Over the course of the next few months, a 60-minute-long cassette recording is handed to her each week to remind her of her transgression and the pain she has brought Hans. There’s no limit to his accusations – he questions her loyalty and distorts the truth making her question her sanity. It’s an ugly affair.

Meanwhile, Hans continues to enjoy all the privileges that men with power do. He refuses to give up his wife – but that does not stop him from play-marrying Katharina – while dreaming about having a baby with his much younger mistress. If in the beginning Katharina held power over him with her youth and frankness, the tables quickly turn as Hans tries to triumph over her using age-old ways of manipulation and male ego.

And the ugly

In the second half of the book – which some readers have complained about being repetitive – Erpenbeck highlights the rift between the couple by replaying in excruciating detail the messages recorded in the aforementioned cassettes. It is a terrible intrusion of privacy, witnessing Katharina’s degradation at the hands of the man she has come to love. As Hans gets more desperate, Katharina is infused with quiet determination. Erpeneck’s refusal to let Hans’s reproaches disappear into silence shows yet again how human resolve surfaces from the worst of circumstances. At 19, Katharina was ripe for debasement and when the worst has passed, she comes into her own haltingly, fumblingly, but surely. Erpenbeck’s treatment of the coming-of-age genre is brutal but this is an exceptional circumstance – a newly-formed adult abused and disabused by someone whose love for her should’ve been more forgiving, and formative.

When the Wall finally crumbles, so do the many sureties of life. All of a sudden the Germans are faced with the impermanence of material life – medals become trinkets, communist beliefs are palmed off to capitalism, jobs are rendered useless, and even the national anthem sounds silly. The old order of life has been upturned in a day. The anxieties are severe but it’s also the start of something new.

This tiresome, heartbreaking reality is intercepted with Katharina’s feverish entanglements with Rosa (who, by the way, is dismissed by Hans as a non-threat) and a bloody abortion. Hans and Katharina’s “honeymoon” in Moscow is full of sweet details but it is hard to feel optimistic against the backdrop of the sterner reality of their romance.

As Katharina gathers courage, she can finally confront Hans. Stand up to him. Call out his cruelty. But this too is slow to happen – they break off their relationship and get together again, the separation no longer than a few weeks. Erpenbeck knows the pains and the impossibility, of quitting love cold turkey.

And yet, Kairos does not seek to be disapproving of age-gap relationships but merely asks us to consider the part that politics and memory play in interpersonal relationships. Of course, there’s the matter of the male ego and it has little to do with seniority – as any woman in a heteronormative relationship will confirm. As walls come up and walls fall, we are left to ponder on the limitations of our own understanding of the self and heart, and how we offer ourselves for hurt and grief – at all ages – when we set sail on the choppy waters of love.

Kairos, Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, Granta.