Friday, 12 October 2018

Book Review: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, it’s an innate impulse to go in search of a better place to live in when for some reason things turn tough where we are and it’s thanks to it that, in the course of tens of thousands of years, human race colonised virtually the entire planet. However, as soon as our ancestors began settling down, migration became a problem because it’s in our nature, too, to protect kith and kin as well as resources from rapacious outsiders. Huge migration waves as in ancient times no longer happen, but a stream of refugees like in the summer of 2015 suffices to put us into a state of alarm. In Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck a recently retired classics professor gets involved in the lives of a group of asylum seekers who camp on a central square in Berlin to become visible as human beings in need.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin, German Democratic Republic (today: Germany), in March 1967. After high school she did an apprenticeship as a bookbinder for two years and then earned her living as props and wardrobe supervisor at different theatres. In 1988, she enrolled on Theatre Sciences at Humboldt University in Berlin, but changed her studies to Music Theatre Directing at the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory two years later. Following her graduation in 1994, she worked as assistant director at the Opera House in Graz where she also did some own productions in 1997 before becoming a freelance opera director. In the late 1990s, too, she began her writing career bringing out the short-story collections The Old Child and Other Stories (Geschichte vom alten Kind: 1999) and Tand (2001; tr. Trinkets). They were followed – along with two plays so far – by the novella The Book of Words (Wörterbuch: 2004) and the highly successful novels Visitation (Heimsuchung: 2008), The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend: 2012), and Go, Went, Gone (Gehen, ging, gegangen: 2015). Since spring 2007, the author writes a biweekly column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Jenny Erpenbeck lives with partner and son in Berlin, Germany.

Go, Went, Gone begins in present-day Berlin in August, when Richard has finally cleared his office at university where he taught the Classics until his recent retirement. During one of his solitary strolls through the city centre the tents of an illicit refugee camp on Oranienplatz, which have been there for many months, attract his attention. The sight intrigues him and he sits down on a bench for a while to watch the asylum seekers and their supporters. Some of them remind him of figures from Greek mythology and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad. He wonders about the lives of these aliens stranded in a bureaucratic limbo that prohibits them to work for a living and keeps them in idle suspense about whether or not they will be allowed to stay in Germany. Their situation evokes memories of his mother who survived World War II and had to flee Silesia at its end almost losing her baby boy Richard getting on a tightly packed train. His own confusion after the two Germanies had reunified and nobody knew what future would bring, comes back to his mind, too. Several weeks later the illicit camp is closed and its inhabitants distributed to various homes for asylum seekers, among them a provisory one in an old people’s residence near Richard’s house in the suburbs. Curiosity urges Richard to visit there the men from Oranienplatz and to encourage them to tell him their stories. For him it’s kind of a research project at first, but with every new visit he gets more involved in the men’s lives and before long they are friends to him. He listens to them, he volunteers to give makeshift German classes for the advanced, and he helps whenever he can giving advice and money or making small dreams come true…

Told in third person and from the perspective of its scholarly protagonist, the novel Go, Went, Gone follows his transformation from a self-contained, widowed and retired man of habit into a more sociable being and active supporter of refugees. Events, experiences and insights that mark his change are carefully interwove with flashbacks revealing his biography and decisive moments in German history. Along the way the author unfolds as skilfully as gradually the typical fates of refugees who have been on the run for such ages that their being summarised in the title’s conjugation feels entirely apt. They become visible as if they were of flesh and blood. On a less symbolic level, the title refers to the government-funded German classes that the refugees attend, but often so intermittently that they have to start learning their conjugations from scratch ever again. All of it is spiced with the classical scholar’s new understanding of the ancient texts on which centred his entire career. The tone of the novel is calm, not to say contemplative, and surprisingly matter-of-fact. The author permeated it with some symbolism and powerful images, but mostly the language is simple, sober and unassuming. A quick and pleasurable read.

All things considered, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, especially because it treats the controversial topic of modern-day migration and Europe’s shameful reaction to it in a pleasantly sensitive and thoughtful way. The novel’s greatest merit, however, is that it’s neither didactic nor sentimental, but focuses on how getting to know individual refugees and their often shattering stories of a desperate fight for survival rather than a happy journey can lead to better understanding and even to true commitment to the humanitarian cause. Besides, a strong historical dimension draws attention to the fact that during the past century in Europe, too, people had to cope – repeatedly – with traumatic experiences and an uncertain future although I doubt that they were pushed around in a complex bureaucratic maze like today’s refugees. At any rate, it’s a novel that makes think and that I warmly recommend for this reason.

1 comment:

  1. I am excited to see your review this morning. I will be reading and discussing this novel with my Tiny Book Club at the end of the month.


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