International Booker Prize 2024: Jenny Erpenbeck becomes first German writer to win £50,000 award

Author shares prize for Kairos, her novel about lovers in 1980s East Berlin, with its translator, Michael Hofmann

Kairos, written by Jenny Erpenbeck and translated by Michael Hofmann, has won the 2024 International Booker Prize. Erpenbeck is the first German writer, and Hofmann the first male translator, to win the award. They will share the £50,000 (€58,500) prize. The book’s victory, from a record 149 entries, was announced by Eleanor Wachtel, chair of this year’s judges, at a ceremony at Tate Modern, in London, on Tuesday evening.

Erpenbeck’s novel follows a destructive affair between a young woman and an older man in 1980s East Berlin. It intertwines the personal and the political as the lovers seemingly embody the communist state’s crushed idealism, both holding on to the past long after they know they should move on.

Kairos is a “wonderful circumstantial story in which 10 years pre- and post-Mauerfall come into play”, Hofmann said, referring to the period on either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. “The book seems to me like a coin, which has a personal story – heads, as it were – on one side, and tails, the emblem of the state, on the other. It keeps being spun into the air, and it comes down heads, it comes down tails.”

Erpenbeck, who was born in East Berlin in 1967, six years after the construction of the Berlin Wall began, said, “The fall of the wall is an idea of breaking free. And what interested me is that breaking free is not the only thing that can be told in such a story. There are years before and years after. It’s also about what follows the happy end.”


Wachtel described Kairos as luminous prose that is “both beautiful and uncomfortable, personal and political”: “Erpenbeck invites you to make the connection between these generation-defining political developments and a devastating, even brutal love affair, questioning the nature of destiny and agency. Like the GDR” – or German Democratic Republic, the official name of East Germany during its 41-year existence – “it starts with optimism and trust, then unravels.”

The winner was chosen from a shortlist of six books that also included Not a River, written by Selva Almada and translated by Annie McDermott; The Details, written by Ia Genberg and translated by Kira Josefsson; Mater 2-10, written by Hwang Sok-yong and translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae; What I’d Rather Not Think About, written by Jente Posthuma and translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey; and Crooked Plow, written by Itamar Vieira jnr and translated by Johnny Loren. All entries had to be published in Britain or Ireland between May 1st, 2023, and April 30th, 2024.

Wechtel’s fellow judges were the award-winning poet Natalie Diaz, the Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist Romesh Gunesekera, the visual artist William Kentridge and the writer, editor and translator Aaron Robertson.

Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O'Donoghue is an Irish Times journalist