"Where can a person go when he doesn't know where to go?"
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...