Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. Susan Bernofsky): Opening the doors

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know I’m a fervent Remainer but I’m not a blindly naïve one. The EU is an institution ripe for reform but I’ve long believed that international issues are best tackled together. We Europeans failed dismally, however, to find a humane solution to the 2015 refugee crisis, dumping responsibility on the Greeks and Italians who, as the arrival point of those pitifully overloaded and rickety boats we’ve all seen on our TV screens, have the legal responsibility to take their occupants in and decide their case. Then, Angela Merkel bravely opened Germany’s doors. It was this that I had assumed Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel would explore but instead she winds the clock back to the Oranienplatz occupation and its fallout, seen through the eyes of a recently retired widower at a loss to know what to do with himself.

Richard is dismantling his professional life, packing up the books filling the shelves of his office at the Institute where he was a Classics professor and taking them to his lakeside Berlin house. A blank future stretches ahead of him until his interest is piqued first by the hunger strike of ten African refugees, then by the occupation of Oranienplatz, an area he knows well. Richard was once a refugee, coming from Poland with the mother he was almost separated from en route to Germany after the war, but his life now is a settled, respectable one in stark contrast to the Oranienplatz occupants. He decides to find out more about them, a research project which his academic credentials allow him to navigate around the authorities. When the camp is moved on, an agreement negotiated with the Berlin Senate, he moves with it. Friendships are made, stories told, gestures of generosity offered and possibly abused. Richard is transformed by his experience but the refugees are left stranded, still unable to work and with desperately uncertain futures.

Go Went Gone is very different in style from The End of Days and Visitation, the other novels I’ve read by Erpenbeck. It’s a much more conventional narrative which humanises the men through their stories of the often calamitous events that made them leave their homes and the appalling difficulties of their journeys. It’s also Richard’s story – a man who removes himself from the sidelines and becomes involved in the refugees’ lives, sometimes taking his friends with him. Officialdom may prove to be both baffling and obfuscatory but the kindness of strangers who eventually become friends offers hope. As with Erpenbeck’s previous novels, there’s a consciousness of Germany’s own fractured past running through it – Richard hardly knows the western sections of the city he grew up in despite the falling of the Wall decades ago. He remembers the weeping West Berliners expecting a poignant reunion with their Eastern compatriots when all it meant to him was a quicker journey to work on the U-Bahn.

This is a moving and enlightening novel, all the more so for the bald statements which stud it, the most effective being ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, ‘Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?’ repeated over two otherwise blank pages. I read it with a sense of national shame at the paltry number of refugees my own country has taken in. I’m not so starry-eyed as to think that Angela Merkel’s generosity has been universally welcomed in Germany, or that it’s without its problems, but I applaud it wholeheartedly. Good luck in Sunday’s elections, Chancellor Merkel.

10 thoughts on “Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. Susan Bernofsky): Opening the doors”

  1. This book just came out here and I bought it last weekend. Jenny Erpenbeck is coming to our readers’ festival in October where I will have a couple of opportunities to see her. I do hope I will get to the book before that time but I do have a few others lined up. Nonetheless, I’m really looking forward to it (the book and hearing her).

    1. I’m sure her talk will be interesting. It’s an important book. Writers often purport to tackle issues troubling our society but rarely manage to make the results both appealing and enlightening. She does both well.

  2. I was in Germany on holiday when the refugee crisis started – interesting to see the reactions there. initially there were a few very large marches in favour of the open door policy but then within days equally large but more noisy protests and demos against the policy when the refugees actually arrived. Clearly an emotive issue

    1. Indeed it is. I saw Bergida posters when I was in Dresden last year although I also saw anti-fascist ones, too. My partner’s step-sister lives down near the Swiss border and often finds herself arguing the refugees’ case but there’s also a lot of support and a degree of pride in Merkel’s policy. It looks as if she’ll be re-elected but with the likelihood of Alternative for Germany gaining seats, too.

  3. I was very glad to see that Merkel was re-elected. As you say, her open-arms policy hasn’t been universally welcomed (most certainly not here in UK) but it’s an example that others should follow, brave and decent and open-spirited. I read something about the mass exodus in Florida as Hurricane Harvey approached and someone asking everyone to think for a moment what it would be like if no one would let you leave. It’s a sobering though, and it takes minimal effort, really, to put yourself in the shoes of a refugee. It sounds like Erpenbeck is tackling a difficult subject here, with insight and tact. Great review, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. I agree absolutely about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I know it’s easier for some to do that than others but all you have to do is think about your own family and friends in a similar situation. I’m sorry that Merkel’s re-election has been tempered by the rise of Alternative for Germany. It’s bound to make her life more difficult.

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