“Go, Went, Gone”, by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, is one of the best novels to date about the subject of immigration/migrants/emigrants. The title is particularly evocative, since the African migrants around whom this novel is written, are being taught the German language, simply because they have nothing else to do–they are not allowed to work–and the three tenses of “go” are, indeed, go, went, and gone. The second meaning, thus, of the title, is that in a very brief time, these African migrants left Africa/Libya under horrific circumstances, they arrive in Germany, and most will be deported: go, went, gone……
Erpenbeck’s lead character/narrator is a recently retired Berlin academic, Richard, who’s just beginning to settle into the radicality of his life without teaching (retirement, it turns out, is another huge challenge in people’s lives, as retirees more or less vanish from the productive workplace, into a kind of limbo of aging and possible irrelevance). Richard walks by a demonstration in a square in Berlin, where those African refugees mentioned above are trying to bring awareness to their cause–they want to stay in Germany if they possibly can. Erpenbeck makes it very clear that making it to Germany is still a part of being at war for these migrants; they have made it this far, but they are still homeless, and have seen some of the worst horrors of contemporary life/warfare/drownings in rickety boats from Libya to Germany. Richard is at first mildly interested, but has a typical “I don’t want to get involved” first -world attitude. He decides, however, to use his academic research skills and to interview men in this particular group of refugees, who are living–for the moment–in an abandoned nursing home. Erpenbeck is brilliant in this book at educating the reader into the complex legal situations in which these migrants find themselves: for example, since they first set foot in Italy on their journey Westward towards survival, and, they, hope a fresh start, they are only allowed to “work” in Italy, and only then with passports from their countries of origin, most likely drowned in the waters of The Mediterranean Sea and/or stolen by smugglers to pay for their passage. While partly giving these men refuge–but only for awhile–The EU’s laws virtually assure their eventual deportation and their inability to work at all, at least legally, while in Germany. And, of course, these men can hardly afford immigration lawyers.
Richard’s ongoing involvement with these men is fascinating and is the heart of the novel. By sheer physical presence in the nursing home–and other venues into which the refugees are effectively dumped–he meets individual men, with individual stories, histories , backgrounds, hopes–and losses galore. Most of the men are in their early twenties. Erpenbeck’s great achievement in this novel is to put a human face on the stories of individual men, thus removing them from the group, and or the “groupthink” of bureaucrats who, of course, are terrific at denying them virtually anything that matters. Erpenbeck counters Richard’s new involvement with these men–many of whom he will eventually hire to do work for him, one of whom he teaches the piano in his own house–with Richard’s old friends from his academic days. This strategy allows Erpenbeck to examine the usual fears and prejudices that the native populations of so many Western countries have towards new migrants (often full of inventions, the usual prejudices). Thus, a crisis of identity hits Richard as he throws his lot in more and more with the migrants, and less and less with certain old friends whose attitudes towards these men shock and disappoint Richard. The novel’s thus beautifully structured, point/counterpoint, and becomes a kind of morality tale in the deal. And Erpenbeck writes with a spare dignity; if anything, she underwrites, so that the impact of her language is that much more powerful.
Eventually , every one but one of the men with whom Richard interacts will move into his house–which is large, particularly from the eyes of the migrants, and they form a kind of commune of sorts, where labor is divided and camaraderie grows. We readers know that this asylum, too, will be temporary, but the evolution of Richard’s character away from the careful life of the German bourgeoisie into this radical new territory–and what a better man he becomes!–is at the heart of this exceptionally fine novel, probably the best I’ve read in a few years on the topic of the new migration going on all over the world. (The much praised “Exit West” also deals with the topic of migration, but I think that Erpenbeck’s novel is far more powerful).
And “Go, Went, Gone” is an exceptional novel with which to start the literary year of 2018, as it’s so graceful, so powerful, and so utterly essential.