Go, Went, Gone

Jenny Erpenbeck

I read Go, Went, Gone several months ago, and if I hadn’t collected some notes back then I probably wouldn’t have been able to post anything about it. Happily I wrote down enough to resurface some memories, as this is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It has a clear political message, so it will appeal most to people who are already interested in that perspective. While I think it steers clear of unbridled sentimentality and outright didacticism, others may disagree.

A widowed and recently retired classics professor finds his days suddenly open and is drawn to a tent city of African asylum seekers in the center of Berlin. When they are moved into temporary housing in the unused part of a nursing home while the state decides their legal fates, Richard approaches as a researcher, interviewing the men and sitting in on their language classes, not sure exactly what his project will be. He is moved to return, as the project falls to the wayside, and he gradually becomes part of this unintended community.

As an intellectual, he considers the positions of these men, who have fled poverty and war and trauma to then be held in bureaucratic limbo, neither welcomed nor turned away. But also he examines the larger patterns of migration, as in one section when he considers the path Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus through what is now Turkey and the Middle East into Egypt and ancient Libya. Later they migrated into modern-day Niger, then back through Libya, and across the Mediterranean to Italy and Germany:

… it’s nearly a perfect three-quarters circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did movement cease.

Richard has a particular viewpoint on the changeability of borders and movement across them, as he lived in East Germany within a block of the dividing line of West Germany when the wall came down. He considers these sorts of boundaries while watching an altercation spark between the asylum seekers and authorities outside the nursing home:

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

Go, Went, Gone tackles what many consider the great moral crisis of our time in a beautifully readable novel (Susan Bernofsky’s graceful English translation has much to do with this). The contemporary Western world is made up of the most advanced societies in known history, yet still we struggle with the basic concept of humanity. As Erpenbeck writes, the refugees “survived the passage across a real-life sea” only to “drown in rivers and oceans of paper.”