Go Went Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck has frequently explored the injustices of history, but in her latest novel to be translated into English (by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky), Go Went Gone, she tackles the injustices of the present. Erpenbeck decided to write the novel (which was published in Germany in 2015) in 2013 in response to the media reaction to the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, feeling it was time to look more closely at what was happening, and, in particular, the experience of these displaced people when they arrived in Germany. “You can blank out the suffering of others,” she has said, “but you are also refusing to look at something in yourself.”

The first hurdle a writer must overcome in recreating the lives of refugees is the lack of action, forbidden, as they are, from working, largely spending their time waiting for some response from a distant bureaucracy. Erpenbeck does this by using a retired university professor, Richard, as a conduit for her exploration of their experience. Richard, having just retired, also finds time “completely different”:

“But now he’s being tormented… by time itself. Time is supposed to pass, but not just that.”

The novel opens with a refugee protest, a hunger strike, in Alexanderplatz; Richard’s first involvement occurs as he fails to notice the protest and its ironic intention: We become visible. The demonstration is soon over, but Richard finds it preys on his mind – “He’d really like to know what’s become of the ten men from Alexanderplatz” – and also awakens his interest in the countries the men have come from, bringing him to face to face with his own ignorance:

“The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country – even though, as the article about this faux pas pointed out – there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?”

As Richard is a university professor, his ignorance feels wilful, a decision to ignore a large part of the globe which will later be reflected in the attitudes of his friends. Erpenbeck’s decision to make Richard a professor of Classics also seems very deliberate, a reminder of the importance of the countries around the Mediterranean to our culture (many of the refugees come from Syria, even if they are not Syrian). Richard is also East German and therefore aware that a society which seems almost relentlessly permanent can suddenly collapse. It also gives him an insight into different kinds of borders:

“…as long as a border of the sort he’s been familiar with for most of his life runs along a particular stretch of land and is permeable in either direction after border control procedures, the intentions of the two countries can be perceived by the used of barbed wire, the configuration of fortified barriers, and things of that sort. But the moment these borders are defined only by law, ambiguity takes over…”

Richard discovers that refugees can only claim asylum in the EU country they arrive in, but that those countries are happy to let them leave for another country:

“For a moment, Richard imagines what it would be like having someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic.”

Richard begins to visit refugees who have been housed in a nearby, disused home for the elderly, initially viewing this contact as a research project:

“Richard spends the next two weeks reading several books on the subject of refugees and drawing up a catalogue of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them.”

This allows Erpenbeck to use her own research without having to heavily fictionalise it. (At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Erpenbeck was paired with Jason Donald whose novel Dalila is centred on a fictional Kenyan refugee, a character created by amalgamating the experiences of the many refugees Donald has spoken to; Erpenbeck instead presents her stories largely as she heard them). Whether Richard’s journey mirrors her own, it is certainly intended to encourage the reader to move from interest to empathy. Each refugee’s story is individual, but all can be summarised in the words of Rashid:

“From one day to the next, our former life came to an end.”

Though, in style, this is very different to Erpenbeck’s previous novels – particularly in the intensity of language – it is not without haunting images. Erpenbeck uses a drowning in a lake which Richard’s house overlooks to mirror those killed on the voyage across the Mediterranean:

“They still haven’t found the man at the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t suicide. He died in a swimming accident.”

Waiting for the corpse to rise echoes the waiting of the refugees in a novel about becoming visible: as Erpenbeck has said, “Things that disappear still have their place in the world.”

Go Went Gone shows a skilled novelist engaging with a vital topic, demonstrating the importance of fiction in understanding the world. Any fear that Erpenbeck is in danger of reducing her work to reportage is dismissed by an ending which suddenly plunges us into the human depths she has so fearlessly explored in the past.

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14 Responses to “Go Went Gone”

  1. BookerTalk Says:

    Very topical and the varying reactions in Germany to the refugees would give a lot of scope.

  2. roughghosts Says:

    Great review. How timely! I bought this book today (I think it’s not officially out until Tuesday but it was on the shelf). I had just come from a volunteer orientation for our upcoming readers’ festival. Erpenbeck is coming and she is scheduled for a number of interesting panels. I’m excited to hear and meet her. We typically don’t have too many international authors, but this year should be good. And I am looking forward to reading this; I think it will be to my liking.

    • 1streading Says:

      That sounds great – I’ve seen her a couple of times and she’s always been very interesting. One aspect of this novel this novel that she often speaks about is the fact she is originally East German which brings her a different perspective – it’s easy to forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall is not that far in the past.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    An interesting way of exploring a very timely issue. Do you think the reference to Alexanderplatz could be a nod to Alfred Doblin’s novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz? I might be completely wide of the mark with this comment as I haven’t read BA. It’s just the use of that setting makes me wonder if there might be some kind of connection between the two…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m sure you’re right – it also crossed my mind – but as I haven’t read it I’ve really no idea. I think that a Penguin Classics edition might be coming out next year (it’s currently out of print) so hopefully I’ll get a chance to check!

  4. lizzysiddal Says:

    Key question: did you like it? I felt – and still feel – rather cool. I don’t doubt it’s importance, but too much fact, not enough fiction for it to work as a novel for me.

    • 1streading Says:

      I did like it though it is quite different form her previous work and clearly something she felt she had to write about. I thought her portrayal of Richard was important in ensuring it worked as a novel after she had made the decision to include the refugee stories as ones that he heard. Perhaps she felt writing as a refugee was attempting to own their experience in a way shew didn’t want to (though you could argue she has done similar things in he previous work).

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The use of the outsider perspective seems useful on a number of fronts. Firstly it strikes me there must be a difficulty in a middle class established Western author getting themselves into a refugee headspace, and then you potentially get issues of appropriation or stereotyping. Secondly, that’s what most of the readers will be.

    Still, it sounds worthy but perhaps not essential. Have you tried The Gurugu Pledge? I’m more tempted by that personally. This sounds as Lizzy mentions perhaps not quite fictionalised enough.

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree with your comments about the use of an outsider – I thought it was fictionalised in that Richard was not simply a proxy for Erpenbeck.
      I have a copy of The Gurugu Pledge – hopefully I’ll get to it soon!

  6. Tony Says:

    I read this when it came out in German – literally just after the refugee crisis reached Europe. It was very timely then, but it’s still very important now 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – both in Germany and in the UK, where the issue of immigration has become the driver for so much of our politics. (Well, I say ‘our’ but the situation in Scotland is not exactly the same, thus causing further problems!).

  7. Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kang and Jenny Erpenbeck – are likely to reappear. The fact that both books (The White Book and Go Went Gone) are quite different to the author’s previous work will hopefully be in their favour. The […]

  8. Dog Island | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] is not a moral one (of appropriation), he argues, but a technical one of narrative. And so, in Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck centres her viewpoint on a retired university professor who encounters a group of […]

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