Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Review published on November 8, 2017.

After a long career culminating in the position of Professor of Classical Philology at a university in the east of Berlin (until 1989 in the GDR), Richard is wondering what he can do to fill his retirement days. His attention is caught by a group of refugees camping out in a Berlin square, not the Syrian refugees we read about more often but those from mostly West Africa who arrived in Italy on boats from Libya. He starts to visit them, collecting their individual stories, striking up relationships with some that continue when they are moved to temporary accommodation in a disused nursing home. The refugees’ experiences have all been different but equally traumatic, and derive from being on the wrong side in the conflicts taking place in their home countries.

Both Richard and the reader come to see how European bureaucracy thwarts the refugees’ hopes of finding work and a new home easily. There are rather a lot of characters and it took me a while to fix them in my mind as individuals, but then my heart went out to them. Certainly by the end I was invested in what the future might hold for the main figures and, by extension, for the hundreds of thousands of real people in their predicament.

Being on the wrong side introduces another theme that I remember from reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s earlier novel, Visitation, that of the ambivalence of many Germans to reunification. The idea that I think I had that in 1989 the population of the GDR went skipping over the rubble of the wall into the bright sunlight of the West is just not the case, except for the very young and those with families divided by the partition of Germany. Here she shows that for older people like Richard who had lived all their lives and whose entire family was in the east, and who had not hankered to escape the Communist system, reunification could mean a lifetime’s work was trashed in the space of a few months, out-of-date technology and ideas swept aside as the right side brought them up to speed, not to mention the question of historical land ownership when exiles started returning. Street names, often honouring national heroes, changed overnight, even the names of ordinary things – ‘kaufhalle’ became ‘supermarkt’ – people felt like foreigners in their own country.

She sets the experiences of the former East Germans and the African refugees together to striking effect. ‘To Richard – and also to his friends – ……. the sense that all existing order is vulnerable to reversal, has always seemed perfectly natural, maybe because of their postwar childhoods, or else it was witnessing the fragility of the Socialist system under which they’d lived most of their lives and that collapsed within a matter of weeks.’

’… 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 anaemia? 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?’

The quality of the writing (and all credit to the translator that it reads so well in English) is a real treat. Jenny Erpenbeck writes elegantly and engagingly while tackling tough, topical issues. By no means a light read, what could have been a bit of a rant (and I fear I might have made it seem to be one) is tempered by some lovely poetic passages and descriptions. The German perspective was eye-opening for me and I think reading groups would find it a worthwhile choice. I’d recommend highly.

Sue Broom 4/5

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Portobello Books Ltd 9781846276200 hbk Sep 2017

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