Go, Went, Gone

“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.”

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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.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a Pakistani setting that could also be a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”