Tag Archives: Go Went Gone

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (transl. by 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.

Books to Look Out for in September 2017

Cover imageSeptember’s preview starts with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, a book I’ve been hoping to see in translation since MarinaSofia over at Finding Time to Write mentioned it earlier in the year. In it Erpenbeck explores the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees and the effects of their arrival on German society through Richard, an academic who lives in Berlin. The novel is ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality and a beautifully written examination of an ageing man’s quest to find meaning in his life’ according to the publishers. I very much enjoyed Erpenbeck’s The End of Days which told the story of the Eastern European twentieth century through a woman whose fate is constantly reimagined rather in the way that Kate Atkinson does with Ursula Todd in Life After Life.

Not so very far away, Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained-glass Window begins in 1989 when a soprano at the Lviv opera is shot dead while leading her fellow citizens in a protest against Soviet power. She leaves an eleven-year-old daughter who tells the story of their family both before and after the shooting. ‘Just like their home city of Lviv, which stands at the crossroads of nations and cultures, the women in this family have had turbulent lives, scarred by war and political turmoil, but also by their own inability to show each other their feelings. Lyrically told, this is the story of a young girl’s emotional, sexual, artistic and political awakening’ say the publishers. This is such an interesting period in that part of the world, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Since its longlisting for this year’s Man Booker the publication of my next choice has been brought forward to August but I can’t bring myself to let it go unmentioned. In Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a young woman realises her dream of studying in America but can’t stop worrying about her twin siblings: the headstrong Aneeka in London, and Parvaiz who seems intent on following the same path as his jihadist father. Then the son of a powerful British Muslim politician enters the sisters’ lives: ‘Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this Cover imagesearing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love? A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide’ say the publishers a little melodramatically. It’s been quite some time since Shamsie’s last novel, A God in Every Stone, and I’m sure that the Man Booker longlisting will only have added to the anticipation for this one, published tomorrow.

Which can also be said about Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. There was a bit of a literary stir back in 2013, the year Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was published in the UK, when an interviewer asked her why her narrator was so unlikeable. Messud gave a somewhat waspish response – and who can blame her? How tedious fiction would be if every character was nice. Her new novel looks at female friendship through two women who have been friends since nursery school but whose paths diverge leaving one of them feeling cast aside. ‘Disturbed, angry and desperate for answers, she sets out on a journey that will put her own life in danger, and shatter her oldest friendship. Compact, compelling, and ferociously sad, The Burning Girl is at once a story about childhood, friendship and community, and a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about childhood and friendship’ say the publishers which sounds right up my street.

I’m not so sure about Estep Nagy’s We Shall Not Sleep, a debut set in the summer of 1964. The Quicks and the Hillsingers have shared a small Maine island for generations but despite two intermarriages the families have little to do with each other. This year things look set to change. ‘We Shall Not All Sleep is a richly told story of American class, family, and manipulation–a compelling portrait of a unique and privileged WASP stronghold on the brink of dissolution’ according to the publishers. I like the sound of that but not so much the mention of violent games and sadistic older brothers which appears further on in the very detailed blurb.

Cover imageMy last choice for September is set in a bleak, hungry and frozen London in January 1947. Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress tells the story of Joan whose actor husband, the great Charlie Grice, has died. Persuaded against her will to attend a benefit performance of Charlie’s last play, Joan is shocked to see her husband’s eyes staring back at her from his understudy’s face. Grief-stricken, she seeks comfort with the young actor but discovers a dreadful secret. Anyone who’s read McGrath’s previous fiction will be expecting more than a touch of the gothic and it sounds as if they won’t be disappointed.

That’s it for September titles. A little thin this year, given that it’s the beginning of the run up to Christmas in the publishing year but I’m sure October will be jam-packed with goodies. Paperbacks soon…