This is a book that offers an intelligent fictionalised response to the refugee crisis by distilling the unimaginable scale and horror of a worldwide problem to the personal stories of a few people, played out in today’s Berlin. Full of generosity and humanity, it manages to be wide‐ranging and universal and yet astonishingly simple.
Richard is a widower and a recently retired professor of Classics. His house is quiet and his days are empty of events but his mind is active, and into this void rushes the plight of a group of refugees and asylum seekers. Having lived through the major events of the second half of the 20th Century in Germany he is no stranger to the personal ramifications of the political big picture. The Berlin Wall which sliced a city in two and set families and friends against each other; the millions of displaced people following the Second World War; bureaucracy, Ordnung, and the academic disciplines of rhetoric and logic all inform his experiential and intellectual background. So when a group of people from African countries becomes marooned in the centre of his city he sets out to find out more.
At first it becomes a research project: he wants to talk to these strangers living in tents who need food, water and shelter. As he comes to learn their different stories, which he at first interprets in the only way he knows how – in classical terms – the individual men from Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Ghana become not just real to him but magically real, mythical archetypes: Tristan, Apollo, the Thunderbolt Hurler. And these stories with their stark truths also unfold for the reader, lending a political heft to the book that is surely the book’s real purpose.
Richard thinks of Grimms’ Fairy Tales which he loved as a child. He thinks of the brothers sent out into the world by their father to make their fortune, to find a beautiful princess, solve riddles, and earn their inheritance…In these tales, the world is always something that begins at a crossroads, a forking of paths. In these tales, salvation always comes.
He listens to their stories, and learns what has led each one on individual desperate odysseys from their destroyed villages over land and sea to this cold city in Germany where no one quite knows what to do with them. Not only is there a language barrier, which means that terrible events need to be broken down into their simplest facts, there is a real sense that even the most complex and nuanced language is an inadequate means of expressing horrors that are literally unspeakable. Jenny Erpenbeck’s style is limpid, stark and direct. Punctuation is pared back and conversations are related without inverted commas, so there is a sense that the stories flow as if from one source. It feels very immersive.
Richard asks him if he wants to lie down. No thank you, Rachid says. I often can’t sleep at night, but it’s okay. One man jumped out of our boat and tried to swim back to shore, but they shot him in the water.
Speech, communication, words and meanings are a recurrent theme. The refugees are given language lessons and learn the rudiments of German grammar where the conjugated verb gehen, ging, gegangen (go, went, gone of the title) expresses perfectly the shifting, rootless nature of their lives. Although Richard tries in his own way to help ‐ he offers friendship, piano lessons, he cooks food, he buys some land, even offers rooms to some ‐ we know that in the end most will move on.
Is every successful dialogue just an act of recognition? And is understanding not a path but a condition? There are so many disruptions in their lives that there’s no room in their heads for new vocabulary. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They’re afraid. It’s difficult to learn a language if you don’t know what it’s for.
This is a consciousness‐raising book about compassion, human cruelty, boundaries, bureaucracy, nonsensical laws, regulations and inadequate policies, about history repeating itself. It doesn’t quite work as a traditional novel ‐ although there are elements of the Bildungsroman in Richard’s growth in knowledge and understanding, and in the finding of a new kind of purpose – but it’s probably not meant to be read as such. There is no fairy‐tale salvation at the end of this story, and no real answers, but the reader is left with the uneasy sense that, like Richard, there are few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.
Go, Went, Gone is published by Portobello Books, 304 pages.