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