This is my review of Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.
In the original German of “Gehen, ging, gegangen” the title conveys more effectively the pathos and irony of rootless migrants having to learn the niceties of German grammar in a society putting them under pressure to move on, preferably to a place where ironically their German will not be required.
Living alone since his wife’s death, clinging to routine but at a loss in the recent retirement from his long-held post as a professor in Berlin, introspective Richard becomes aware of the growing number of African migrants squatting in the city. When some are evicted from a square, he obtains permission to interview them, reading several books on refugees to help him devise the questions.. What seems at first like an academic’s automatic response of viewing them as a topic for study, soon grows into a sense of empathy with the refugees, which it seems to be the author’s prime aim to arouse in readers as well.
As Richard’s life becomes more enmeshed with those of the migrants, he realises that actions which cost him little can transform lives. In return, puzzled by his decision never to have children, some refugees reciprocate by including him in the strong sense of friendship and community which is all they have. Richard rails against the rigid bureaucracy: the crazy world in which the refugees are not permitted to work, even in areas of skilled work where there is a labour shortage, and therefore doomed to become a burden to society, the motivation which led them to escape their past life sinking into apathy or boiling into rage.
Jenny Erpenbeck is keen to show the arbitrary nature of the boundaries which divide us. For a boy who has grown up in the Sahara, the borders drawn by Europeans are “perfectly straight lines” with no relevance. During his family’s wartime flight from Silesia to resettle in Germany, Richard himself was only saved from being permanently separated from his mother by the kindness of a vigilant Russian soldier. “What would have become of the infant if the train had pulled out of the station two minutes earlier?” He then lived for decades on the communist side of the Berlin Wall, so that post-unification, he still gets lost on trips to the still unfamiliar west side.
In a key passage, which also highlights the translator’s skills, Richard muses how to him and his friends, “the sense that all existing order is vulnerable to reversal..has always seemed perfectly natural, maybe because of their postwar childhoods, or else it was witnessing the fragility of the Socialist system under which they’d live most of their lives and that collapsed within a matter of weeks”. Have “long years of peacetime” made politicians believe that we have reached an “end of history” status quo which has to be protected from change by violence? Has growing up in “untroubled circumstances” distanced ordinary people so far from the suffering of those in war-torn lands that they are afflicted with a sort of “emotional anemia”? Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”
The author has drawn on the experiences of real-life refugees, although one cannot know to what extent she has altered them. In what often seems quite a disjointed approach, it is hard to keep the refugees in mind as distinct characters and engage with them. The text also gets bogged down at times in over-detailed explanations of the various, probably no longer applicable, regulations imposed. I wondered at times if the book would have been more effective if written as a straightforward account and analysis of actual events. As it is, the novel gives scope for artistic licence, creating the stream of consciousness in Richard’s head, leavening the grimness with wry humour and occasional diversions into magic realism. At times, Richard recedes as a character, but the book clearly begins and ends with him, understanding and developing himself more as an individual through his encounters with the refugees.
This is an original book full of insights, which repays a second reading to absorb all the ideas. However, although in many ways profound, it is also quite subjective, conveniently ignoring “other sides of the question”, such as the long-term implications of very high levels of unrestrained migration, and the need to grasp the nettle of managing it in some way.