On 9 November, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published a list of 33,293 people who died trying to emigrate to Europe between 1993 and May of this year. The vast majority drowned in the Mediterranean. As a death toll, the figure is numbing. As a proportion of the EU’s population of 510 million, it is less than 0.007 percent – smaller than the population of, say, Skelmersdale or Haywards Heath – an influx that could easily be accommodated within our large, wealthy continent.
Jenny Erpenbeck, the brilliant German novelist whose four previous books have probed her country’s troubled 20th century history, has now turned to the greatest challenge it has faced in the 21st: the refugee crisis. Her latest book, Go, Went, Gone, eschews the magical realist elements of its predecessors in favour of a crisp documentary approach. It also draws on that classically German genre, the Bildungsroman, a novel charting the moral education of its protagonist.
Richard is a professor of classics facing retirement. Contemplating the empty days ahead, he chances across a group of African asylum-seekers demonstrating in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz against their forced invisibility, and the laws that deny them the right to work. Slowly, hesitantly, he is drawn into their world, and – despite his immense privilege in comparison to them – discovers strange parallels with his own life.
As an infant at the end of the Second World War, he was himself displaced by conflict. An East German who “suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country” in 1990, he still doesn’t know his way around West Berlin twenty-five years later. A widower, he lives, like the refugees housed in all-male hostels, without the companionship of a woman, in a world suffused by absence and melancholy. And like them, he has been denied the structure, purpose and dignity to be found in work.
Richard assists with their German language classes, helps them to negotiate the complexities of German bureaucracy, and learns their stories. Some of the men, who come from Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and other African countries, sought work in Gaddafi’s Libya, and were forced to flee the fighting that followed the fall of the regime. Awad saw his father murdered in Tripoli; Rashid watched his two children drown when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean.
Richard’s education is painful, raw and shaming. He is mortified to recall his initial assumption that the refugees’ mobile phones were a luxury; men being moved with little notice from one residence to another, he now realises, have no other link with family and friends. When Libyan soldiers smashed their phones, Awad tells him, they broke the memory. The traumas of Europe seventy years ago, Richard learns, are of little interest to men whose lives have been shattered by more recent wars on another continent. Re-reading Herodotus in the light of his new experiences, he reflects that the movement of people across continents has been going on for millennia. And when Osarobo, a Christian from Niger to whom he gives piano lessons, asks if he believes in God, his own atheism comes to seem a Western luxury.
A series of dinner party scenes satirises the attitudes of Richard’s bourgeois friends. One couple, returning from a holiday in Florence, complain about the number of Africans there. Then, recalling the impossibility of such a visit under the DDR, they ask what freedom of movement means if not the right to travel, seemingly unaware of the irony.
In the hands of a lesser writer the topic could generate reportage, or a polemic. The eerie detachment of Erpenbeck’s crystalline prose – perfectly conveyed, as ever, by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky – avoids this. Despite its realism, Go, Went, Gone exudes the author’s characteristic sense that behind the meticulously observed banalities of everyday life – shopping lists, recycling bins, patio furniture – shimmer receding layers of past realities, and of alternative, unrealised present possibilities. Like Richard’s wife Christel, like the drowned man at the bottom of the lake beside his house, like the migrants’ families and friends lost in the Mediterranean, the dead are always present among the living.
The novel offers no answers. What it does is to bear witness, bringing to light what we choose to know, what we choose to ignore, and the consequences of our choices. Go. Went . . . Gone.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck | Portobello Books Ltd | 7 Sept. 2017 £14.99 304pp | ISBN: 978-1846276200 | Winner, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
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