Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone

"Where can a person go when he doesn't know where to go?"
The protagonist of Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone is Richard, a retired professor of classics who spent most of his professional career at a university in East Berlin. He's a lonely man. Widowed and childless, he has friends, but at first even they seem to be drifting away. He had a mistress, which made the marriage not an entire success, but now she's gone, too. At the beginning of the novel he's just wrapped up all the rituals of retirement.

He passes, without at first noticing, a protest in a Berlin plaza; a group of African refugees are living in the plaza, Occupy Wall Street-style, trying to draw attention to their plight, and maybe acquire residency and work permits. Richard sees the events on television he'd scarcely noticed in person, but decides to draw up a plan for a sociological inquiry, and uses his emeritus status to get the authority to pursue it. Does he mean to do actual research? Not really. It's just to satisfy his curiosity and give him something to do.

And not a lot happens. He interviews refugees. He becomes more involved, maybe does some good, assuages his own loneliness a bit. The novel ends with the refugees no better off than they were 250 pages earlier, but at least not sent back to Italy, where there is poco lavoro, nor to their various home countries in Africa, where they would be at risk of their lives. They've fought the German bureaucracy and didn't win, but at least weren't utterly routed.

Why do we read novels? There's no one answer to that question, of course. There are different answers for different people and even different moods. I read Mrs. Pollifax on Safari a couple of days ago, and today this--very different, and enjoyed both. Sometimes I read for story, or for escape. But then one of the reasons I read novels is to experience and understand the problems of societies, both of others and of mine own. This novel is as close to purely political, even didactic as almost anything I've read, and yet it's still powerful and affecting; part of that comes from the deep, lonely sadness of Richard as he claws his way back into something like life.

Go, Went, Gone came out in German in 2015 and the translation by Susan Bernofsky came out in English last year. Germany is one of the better European countries on accepting immigrants, or at least Angela Merkel made it so, pledging to take in a million asylum-seekers, quite possibly it seems at the cost of her political career and the rise of the party Alternativ für Deutschland. And yet, at least according to Erpenbeck, maybe not all that welcoming. I don't quite know the timeline of all this because I believe it was also 2015 when Merkel made her pledge, so it's likely Erpenbeck was looking at Germany before Merkel's action. In any case the novel shows plenty of institutional resistance to admitting refugees.

Canada patted itself on the back for taking in just 25,000 Syrian refugees (and I entirely approved of that). As for the U.S., well...

A fascinating book.

She's German and it's very caught up with contemporary Germany, so it definitely fits...


  1. Jenny Erpenbeck is one of one of the great contemporary European writers at the height of her powers. I'm putting this on my TBR right now...must learn about the asylum seekers from an other perspective....and not just from political pundtis. Thx for this great review!

    1. correction: should be pundits!

    2. I've heard of her before but this is the first of hers I've read and I will definitely be reading others. Do you have any particular favorites?

  2. I have not read any of her books so I have no recommendations. Erpenbeck did win the Hans Fallada Prize 2014. The prize is awarded to young German writers 1 x every 2 years. Here is the link. I think the prize winners could be some authors to investigate if want to read something different!

    1. Thanks for the link! The End of Days was also on my radar after I saw something about the English translation. That may be next (and possibly soon).

  3. I started Jenney Erpenbeck's book today...I can't put it down!
    What a laugh in chapter 31 when Richard drives 4 young African refugees from school back to their resident 'nursing home"!