Regular 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.