book review – ‘go, went, gone’ by jenny erpenbeck

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I’ve enjoyed all of the books of Jenny Erpenbeck that have been translated into English thus far, so when I heard about the pending release of Go, Went, Gone I knew I would soon be reading it. Erpenbeck again did not disappoint.

Blurb (Amazon): Go, Went, Gone is the masterful new novel by the acclaimed German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, “one of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation” (The Millions). The novel tells the tale of Richard, a retired classics professor who lives in Berlin. His wife has died, and he lives a routine existence until one day he spies some African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. Curiosity turns to compassion and an inner transformation, as he visits their shelter, interviews them, and becomes embroiled in their harrowing fates. Go, Went, Gone is a scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis, but also a touching portrait of a man who finds he has more in common with the Africans than he realizes. Exquisitely translated by Susan Bernofsky, Go, Went, Gone addresses one of the most pivotal issues of our time, facing it head-on in a voice that is both nostalgic and frightening.

This is a book that every single American needs to read. We think of the refugee crisis in Europe intellectually, and we often hear phrases like, “I know how I’d handle that shit.” But we know nothing. We understand nothing. The glory of this novel is the imparting of something as near to experiential knowledge as is possible without actually experiencing the crisis described.

I often read books in translation, and I tend to enjoy differing aspects of books from different places. I adore the beautiful use of language and relationships in Japanese novels; I adore the simple complexity of Chinese literary fiction; I adore the stark yet emotionally potent use of language and action in German novels. Erpenbeck’s writing is masterful, an exquisite use of prose that any lover of language and literature would be remiss to ignore – flawless use of phrase, lyrical, beautiful, and meticulous. I could hardly stand to put this novel down, reading late into the night until I could barely hold my eyes open. Her writing coupled with the story she’s chosen to tell make this one of the best novels I’ve read in 2017.

Our protagonist, Richard, follows a path:
– encounters refugees (and doesn’t even realize it until later);
– considers their plight;
– begins to research their countries of origin and circumstances that might have led them to Germany (I loved this research, this desire to understand and learn);
– begins to listen to the stories of some of the Africans as part of a personal project;
– begins to sympathize, and eventually empathize for these men, feeling their pain and their loss of home and independence;
– his understanding of humankind and even myth (his area of specialty) begins to transform as his experiences and research expand his horizons of knowledge.

Through his grappling with the issues we also wrestle with larger questions of human rights, dignity, purpose, borders, freedom, independence, and sustainability, among others.

The topic of immigration and refugees is critical for us in the US to consider, especially considering the ugly discussions ongoing about the wall and immigration in general. Perhaps living with Richard’s story, for as long as it takes to read, will help position the discussion in terms of humanity rather than only numbers and fears and dollars.


A few excerpts:
“Seen from this perspective, it’s downright ridiculous to measure a transition by the presence of a body. Seen from this perspective, the uninhabitability of Europe for a refugee suddenly stands in direct relationship to the uninhabitability of the very flesh that is given to every human spirit to inhabit until the end of his days.” p65

“Indeed, the law has made a shift from physical reality to the realm of language. The foreigner, who is at home in neither of these countries, is trapped between these now-invisible fronts in an intra-European discussion that has nothing at all to do with him or the actual war he’s trying to escape from.” p68

“But the inhabitants of this territory…are defending their borders with articles of law, they assail these newcomers with their secret weapon call time, poking out their eyes with days and weeks, crushing them with months…” p81

“Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?” p241

that’s what little protests are made of

take a knee don’t
black an eye don’t
close your eyes to
hate and lies and

hold your head high
hold your fist high
hold your breath you
son of a bitch

we hold these truths to be self-evident: not all are created equal; not all are endowed with unalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are allowed, but you must not be ungrateful.

be grateful you
degenerate punks
you rich, entitled,
arrogant shits

anti-American
anti-military
anti-patriotism
anti-white (oops)

I have a nightmare, deeply rooted in the american dream, that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “we hold these truths to be self-evident: not all are created equal.”

not all are created equal
not all are graced with freedom
not all are given a voice
not all. not all. not all.

transience tagged

Written for Rattle‘s September 2017 Ekphrastic Challenge.
Art can be viewed here: https://i2.wp.com/www.rattle.com/ekphrasis/EC17Sep.jpg?ssl=1


slowly climbing these few steps at the end of each day
takes all the energy that remains

go left
     between the seats
          14A is her favorite
          not too close to front or rear – hidden, like life

blanket, spread.
knees, tucked.
breathing, slows.
remembering, begins.

the dream

today was like every other – push the cart – gather the riches – lean, heavily, as the feet begin to drag a bit – street by street – door by door – ignore the insults – avoid eye contact – keep walking

the dream

when I was young, like Lana’s song, the stares came for different reasons – I soaked them in like epsom salts, easing the aches no one could see – I smiled like a model, thin and beautiful, worthy of everything – everywhere to go, everyone to see, everything to do, all I could be – then there was life.

transience embraced
     nothing remains beyond
          neither time, nor place
          it’s time to embark – find another place, another life

bag, loaded.
coat, buttoned.
hat, gloves,
her few possessions gathered

she departs.

behind her leaving only an eponymous tag.

‘sing, unburied, sing’ and jesmyn ward

I was honored to attend a book signing and reading by Jesmyn Ward at Lemuria Books on September 26, 2017. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’d never read anything by Ward before attending the event. She was on my list of authors to read, I just hadn’t made it around to her yet (it’s a terribly long list). Fortunately for me, I have now.

Blurb for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster) – In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop.

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But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.

I don’t have a real review prepared for this novel, but I did want to share just a few things. Ward’s writing is beautiful, and her treatment of material in the book is simply wonderful. The reader finds themselves riding in the car, smelling the scents (both good and bad), feeling the heat, watching the ghosts, alongside the narrators in the novel. The structure, while not unique, is managed by powerfully swapping between two primary narrators with dramatically different points of view, interspersed a few times with a third, very different, narrator. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of family dynamics, race, Southern culture, growing up and growing old, the drug epidemic, and more. This novel also contains, near the end, one of the most powerful death scenes I’ve ever come across in all of literature. A definite must-read novel of 2017.


Since her reading in Jackson, it has been announced by the MacArthur Foundation that Jesmyn Ward has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded one of the famed Genius Grant for 2017. From what I’ve seen and read, she deserves every bit of the success and recognition. Congratulations!