Go, Went, Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Published by New Directions US, Portobello UK September 2017

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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What is fiction for?

One answer can be found in prize-winning German novelist Erpenbeck’s new novel, a heart-opening story of contemporary immigration to Germany which, in calm tones, asks question both simple and profound about perhaps the most politically seismic issue of our day.

The narrative is written from the perspective of Richard, a retired and widowed classics professor living in middle-class comfort in what was once East Berlin, where he grew up under an absolutist regime that eventually crumbled in a matter of weeks. Through Richard’s eyes, readers come to view the individual horrors and collective misery of a handful of the people who fled their countries, crossed the Mediterranean in immense peril and were welcomed into the unified nation by Angela Merkel.

Escaping wars and massacres in their own or adopted African nations – Niger, Libya, Burkina Faso – these men (Erpenbeck does not include women or children although they are glimpsed on the periphery) are given identity and context by Richard who, cast adrift from his professional life, creates a project for himself of interviewing them, asking about family, food, custom, belief and experience. Thus a group of individuals emerges from the nameless throng, given classical, mnemonic identities by Richard (in, presumably, an ironic nod by the author to the cliché of racial non-recognition), like Thunderbolt-hurler for Rashid, a man of imposing physique, or Apollo, for a young Tuareg man with abundant curls.

But there is nothing disparaging about Richard’s involvement with these survivors, instead we see curiosity,  instinctive empathy and a large measure of self-scrutiny as he comes to understand their stories and losses, and the Kafka-esque impossibility of their situations as, trapped in a thicket of supposedly humane rules and laws, they are systematically repressed and crushed.

Richard is too old to be a firebrand and of the wrong temperament for political activism. Instead, he simply makes friends with these figures, offering his piano to Osarobo who wants to play; accompanying Rufu to the dentist. And of course it’s a two-way street. By visiting the men and becoming acquainted with them, teaching them German and assisting in other ways, Richard’s own life expands too. Rashid even keeps Richard company over what would otherwise have been an empty Christmas. Richard’s most heroic act is to buy a piece of land in Ghana – the cost is compared to, and scarcely eclipses, the price of the new lawn-mower he had been considering – for one of the men, thereby lifting a lifetime’s burden of obligation from the African’s shoulders.

Erpenbeck’s voice in all this is unostentatious, restrained, yet powerfully incisive, asking questions at multiple levels, about the meaning of time, history, race, peace, humanity. Her enquiries, sometimes shocking, rarely clichéd, are frequently bolstered by classical reference or quotation which lend an additional if significantly Western element of insight.

This is a cerebral book, and unashamedly so, invoking European culture both good and bad as a counterpoint to contemporary, non-‘first world’ events. Best of all, it looks nationalism, morality and behavior straight in the eye, and challenges any reader to consider her/his own stance.

Isn’t that what fiction’s for?

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