Jenny Erpenbeck finds a novel way to tackle the migrant problem

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

20 January 2018

9:00 AM

The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, and the autumnal tone of its beginning — a classics professor retires, leaving him at home raking leaves, mulling over memories of his wife and wondering about the body in a nearby lake — suggests that this will be a book of endings, something akin to Anita Brookner’s stories of self-absorbed people in the twilight of their lives.

But Richard, now professor emeritus, proves to be a more unpredictable character. Unlike many of Brookner’s loners, there is the strong force of history in him. A precarious beginning under fascism and war, then a life shaped by the GDR and its abrupt cessation in 1989, has left him and his circle of friends adrift in the new Germany. They have only memories of their vanished country and some sense that the place in which they now find themselves, with its advertised values of reason and law, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For a start, Richard’s pension is smaller than that of his West German compatriots. Not that he’s complaining. As a child versed in ‘proletarian internationalism’, he’s fully aware that, compared with many on the planet, he’s well off: ‘Richard knows he’s one of the very few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.’

The question of what constitutes reality lies at the heart of Erpenbeck’s writing. In Go Went Gone she is at pains to show that what is often taken to be universal can be tendentious or dogmatically insisted upon, despite what ought to be glaring limitations. The body submerged in the lake and Richard’s interest in underground systems (escape routes from the Nazis, tunnels from the Middle Ages) suggest that beneath the ‘veneer’ of reality, much in life is hidden or suppressed.

When Richard watches a news programme about a protest tent city built by refugees in the middle of Berlin’s Oranienplatz, he realises that he has walked through the square without noticing this challenge to everyday life. As an academic, the recognition of his trammelled view, with its implicit lack of curiosity, rankles him. So with nothing else to do, he embarks on a project to discover where the refugees come from and what it is that they want.

At first he sits on a bench in the square and takes notes. Then the authorities make an agreement with the refugees to dismantle the camp. Some are relocated to an unused block in a nursing home near Richard, where he finds men on mattresses four or five to a room, many depressed and sleeping in the middle of the day. But some are awake and — like Richard, with little to do and no way forward in their lives, since they are forbidden to work — they agree to be interviewed. Richard’s questions seem detailed but beside the point — as if, rather than facing the immediate crisis in their lives, he’s testing for humanity: ‘Do people have pets?’ ‘What kind of place did you like to hide in as a child?’

These conversations produce a gentle comedy of cultural difference and, for Richard, a series of realisations. The first is how little, for all his classical education, he knows about the world the refugees come from, even though, as he reacquaints himself with the story of Black Athena, he is reminded that the roots of Western civilisation lie in North Africa. As he walked through the square without seeing the refugees, so he knew of these facts but never assimilated them. Only now, through his new friendships, does the knowledge become meaningful. That he is unaware of where many African countries are on the map, unfamiliar with their capitals and languages is, of course, an indictment not just of Richard but of Western ignorance in general: ‘The American vice-president recently referred to Africa as a country.’

He becomes closer to the refugees, inviting them to his house, sharing meals and taking them to appointments with the authorities, during which he starts to understand how the law is stacked against them. The Dublin II treaty prevents the men from applying for asylum (Germany is not the first European country they arrived in), and the Berlin authorities retract their agreement.

Richard’s dawning awareness brings to mind Ted Hughes’s epiphany, the fruit of his engagement with East European dissidents, about the ‘spoilt brats of Western civilisation… deprived of the revelations of necessity’. Erpenbeck’s tone is not so dramatic: her clear, unshowy prose never draws attention to itself, and at times her novel even reads like a primer, reflecting the way Richard learns, like a child, through reading and friendship, about how the world beyond him has shaped his own.

Yet this is a highly sophisticated work, about how blatant injustice (however dis-regarded) exists together with forces that lurk beneath the surface. At a birthday party for Richard, celebrated with old and new comrades, the light fades and everyone gathers round the fire. There are stories shared by all about guilt, regret and loss; memories that usually remain submerged, too unbearable to think about, but which surface here in the company of friends. This perhaps is the common ground which earlier socialist writers were intent upon, and the scene is relayed by Erpenbeck with extraordinary emotional power, her analytical skill now matched by a tenderness to human beings that remains utterly unsentimental.

At an earlier moment, Richard bemoans the fact that the loss of the GDR has meant the loss of grand ideas about humanity: now only individual action is possible. It is a sentiment that the East German writer to whom Erpenbeck seems most indebted, Christa Wolf, also expressed, saying she no longer believed in ideology, and after the fall of the Wall progress would only occur through pushes made at ground level. A cruel ending looms for the refugees, and they rise once more from their beds to organise another protest, remembering the dignity they found in the Oranienplatz resistance. They know their rooftop protest will not succeed, but as Angela Carter once observed, we organise to keep our spirits up.

The verdict on the refugees’ case finally arrives and the question for Richard remains the old one: what is to be done? His answer, and the way he draws his old German friends in to help, suggests some reconciliation of the grand idea with individual action, a new kind of solidarity and a way forward.

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