Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many things that Erpenbeck deftly accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.
“So here in room 2017, we are, so to speak, in Nigeria.” Richard has just retired from his position as a distinguished professor of classics and, out of a curiosity he can’t yet explain, he has decided to visit a former nursing home that now temporarily houses some of the refugees that have flooded into Berlin. He is being led into a roomful of Nigerians (“There’s also a Ghana room, a Niger room, and so on.”), with whom he will sit and talk, all the while taking notes. He’s still programmed to act like a professor on a research project; he’s prepared a long list of questions to ask: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation?” But his initial conversations with some of the refugees seem inadequate, and he wishes “he knew what questions would lead to the land of beautiful answers.”
Richard is a stereotypical academic and a widower whose life mostly consists of well-established patterns and routines. His friends tend to be conservative and anti-immigrant. But Richard is deeply curious. “Whenever an ‘in spite of’ occurs, in his experience, things get interesting.”
What country are you from?
I come from the desert.
If Richard only knew how large the Sahara was exactly. Was he from Algeria? Sudan? Niger? Egypt?
For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans. Recently, opening up the atlas to look up capital cities, he was struck by all the perfectly straight lines, but only now does he grasp the arbitrariness made visible by such lines.
After some hesitation, Richard decides to help at the refugee center. He wants to learn about them and from them. He assists with the Beginning German class (hence, “go, went, gone”) and becomes close with several of the refugees. He goes with them when they need to do errands and he invites them to his house, where one plays the piano and they are able to earn much-needed cash by assisting him with yard work and chores. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you don’t have any money to buy food.” He realizes how little he knows of their geographies, their tribes, their ways of life back home, and the challenges they face as refugees. But through great persistence, research, and constant self-evaluation, Richard makes progress. He learns to ask the right questions.
How many times, he wonders, must a person relearn everything he knows, rediscovering it over and over, and how many coverings must be torn away before he’s finally able to truly grasp things, to understand them to the bone? Is a human lifetime long enough?
Richard’s evolution from ignorance to activist, made possible by what he learns through his friendships with Rashid, Yussuf, Karon, and other refugees, is carefully plotted by Erpenbeck. By the end of the book he has used $3,000 of his own money to purchase a small piece of property in Ghana so that Karon can return home and support his family. And he has become a fierce critic of Western policies and attitudes toward the people from the Middle East and Africa who have risked their lives to seek safety and help in Europe. As he watches politicians perform their double-talk for the public he observes that “the practical thing about a law is that no one person made it, so no one is personally responsible for it.” What Erpenbeck does is show the reader one man’s path toward greater tolerance.
Erpenpeck’s prose is clean and spare and often very elementary, as befits a beginning language lesson. Richard, like the refugees he meets, is only referred to by his first name.
Only now does Richard see that the boy has four lines inscribed on the skin of each cheek.
What does that symbol mean.
It’s a mark of the Tuareg people.
Richard asks his questions and hears the answers, but he is still at a loss.
Can you tell me how you lived?
The young man takes his phone, looks for something, and finally shows Richard a photograph of a large round hut with a domed roof.
So Apollo has a phone with internet access.
Three men can build a hut like this in one day, he explains, using reeds, palm leaves, skins, woven mats, and sticks. When you depart a place, he says, you take the hut apart and go. The leaves, the reeds, the ashes from the fire—all that disappears quickly in the desert.
But you take the skins and the mats with you?
Yes, and the poles. Trees are rare.
And the dishes, the household objects, the clothing—you take all your possessions with you?
And everything you own is carried by a few camels?
When Richard and his wife moved into their house twenty years ago, they’d filled eighty boxes just with books, not to mention other boxes with dishes, linens, and clothes, the furniture, rugs, and pictures, the lamps the piano, the washing machine, the refrigerator. They’d stuffed every last inch of a large moving van with their possessions.
And food, of course, the boy says.
For how long?
Sometimes two months, sometimes three, depending on the route.
Two or three months?
As I read Go, Went, Gone, I couldn’t help but think back to my recent reading of Mathias Énard’s Compass, which I wrote about in June. In that book, another retired professor—this time, a musicologist, Franz Ritter—reminisces at great length about his travels, escapades, and research in the Middle East—or, the Orient, as he fondly calls it. As I wrote back then, “I found it a little odd, if not unsettling, to be reading a 21st century book that so openly revels in its unrepentant, nostalgic Orientalist.” Ritter’s memory completely overlooks the wars and terrorism that have done so much damage to some of the countries he loved over the last three decades or so. Ritter is a character stuck in a romanticized version of the past, while Richard manages to live in the difficult now.