First published in 2019.
Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January. I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable. I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award. Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’. It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.
The novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife. Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’ As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.
The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time. In any case. his head still works just the same as before. What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’ His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness. The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone. And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’
I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake. I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’ In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life. I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’
Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forcefultool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants. When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around. Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’ With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate. Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green… What does he see? What does he hear? He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans. He sees black men and white sympathizers… The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic. Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.
At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife. In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona. Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant. When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’
The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’. I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety. Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal. The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent. So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.
The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for. The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery. In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants. The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.
Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege. There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective. I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in. She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis. Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.