“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believes we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? 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?”
Without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface.
I came to Jenny Erpenbeck in a roundabout way. I had been reading Stefan Zweig through the recent NYRB Classics series when an ancient historian on Twitter lamented that people were reading Zweig and neglecting the current master, Erpenbeck. So I gave Erpenbeck a shot. She hooked me with her first novel, The End of Days, which examines the twentieth century through a series of deaths. In Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck is back with a masterpiece about the gulf between the citizen and the refugee in our present time.
Richard, an aging widower, has just retired from his position as a Classics professor in Berlin. Go, Went, Gone opens with him emptying his office and retreating into the mundanity of everyday life where his days are spent making food and watching the news. With his newly discovered time, Richard learns of a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz staged by refugees from Africa. Fascinated by these men who seem so out of place, he resolves to get to know them and begins showing up at their residence.
Few speak German, but all are multi-lingual, and Richard often converses with them in some combination of Italian and English. Richard begins by treating the men as his new project, but that quickly gives way to genuine warmth as he gets to know these men who literally risked life to reach Europe. One surviving an accident that killed most of the passengers on the over-crowded boat, another sends most of the money given to him to live back to his family. They cling to the friends they have made among their fellow refugees and just want an opportunity to work while being stymied by the impersonal bureaucracies of indifferent-at-best, hostile-at-worst governments.
Richard is methodical in his approach, trying to do his due diligence by not treating these men merely as monolithic outsiders, but even he has to be shaken from his complacency:
For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans.
But for all of Richard’s conscientiousness, generosity, and empathy for the plight of the outsiders, I found his character distasteful, as though much of his charity was purely self-serving. The Richard we don’t meet, for instance, has his head in the sand about the world around him while he carries on an long-time affair. It is only in the boredom that comes from his retirement that he can be bothered to see what is happening. Likewise, he conceives of the refugees as an academic project first, and, early on, spends almost as much time wondering whether their attractive, Ethiopian German teacher would be interested in sleeping with him as he does trying to help. Richard’s actions are altruistic even if his motives are not, but he nevertheless struck me as a sort of narcissistic humanitarian who is mostly interested in what is in it for him.
Despite my problems with Richard, Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant novel. In one of the first scenes, Richard learns of a drowned man in the lake near his house, creating a massive disruption in his life. Similarly, the disruption caused by the reunification of Berlin, now almost twenty years past, looms large in his existence. And yet, these are minor changes compared to the trauma experienced by the refugees. Richard even struggles to reconcile the present quiet with the memory of Hitler when faced with questions from a refugee whose lived experience was filled with violence.
Politicians in Go, Went, Gone howl about the refugees and make plans to deport them back to Italy––or anywhere, so long as they are not in Germany––but in the world of the novel, the refugees are just people. (In a nice touch that inverts two centuries of racist presentations, Richard takes to giving them nicknames out of Greco-Roman mythology and northern European literature.)
Such is Erpenbeck’s triumph, sitting alongside recent novels like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The plight of the refugees is not exceptional––peace is. As a recent review brilliantly puts it: “this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.”
I just finished David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a riveting history from the 1920s where white guardians conspired to kill their Osage wards in order to deprive them of their tribal allotments, and have now begun Tana French’s The Trespasser, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.