In times of political crisis, what is the novel for? Is it a fundamentally limited form, constrained in scale to its individual characters, or can it confront in some way the global nature of a crisis and its causes? These are important questions for a novelist, and questions that come to haunt Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone (translated here by Susan Bernofsky). The novel, a meditation on the refugee crisis in contemporary Berlin, is a book that insists on the novel's capacity to accommodate and dramatise real moral catastrophe.
The protagonist, Richard, is a recently retired classics professor, prone to abstraction and dispassionate reasoning. Sitting on a bench observing a group of African refugees making camp in Oranienplatz, Richard thinks: “ ‘The Transformation of Sitting’ might be a good title for an essay.” When some of the refugees are transferred to a defunct nursing home near Richard’s own house, he begins to take an interest in their situation, visiting the home to conduct interviews and learn about the lives of the men he meets. (Every refugee in the novel is male). At first, their circumstances seem to appeal to him as an intellectual problem rather than a human tragedy, and even as he gets to know the men, he resists emotional involvement. When Ithemba, one of the refugees, prepares a welcoming dinner for Richard, Richard feels conflicted: he is “moved, but hates how he gets when he feels that way.”
Spare and muscular
Using this restraint as a vantage point, Erpenbeck constructs a spare and muscular narrative of political awakening. As Richard’s interviews with the African men grow lengthier, the novel begins to confront the realities of life for asylum applicants in Europe. Two of the refugees, Zair and Rashid, came to Italy on a boat that capsized during a rescue; of the 800 passengers on board, 550 drowned. “In the metro,” says a young Nigerien named Osarobo of his experience in Europe, “people get up and sit somewhere else when a black man sits next to them.” Slowly the book’s tone shifts, from curiosity to discomfort to outright horror. Richard, born to a German soldier during the second World War, thinks of the refugees and concludes: “only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.”
Through Richard’s interviews, the refugees do have their stories incorporated into the text, but it is ultimately the protagonist’s viewpoint that predominates. Because the interviews each follow a similar format, the sections in which the refugees recount their stories start to feel structurally repetitive; here, the book’s conceit seems to run up against the limits of the novel as a form. The traditional novel, well adapted to the task of developing one protagonist within a defined social world, strains to unite such vast global disparities of experience into one story. Early on, Richard even has “difficulty remembering the foreign names of the Africans”, and decides to give them nicknames from classical mythology instead, exercising a little European imperialism of his own.
The narration returns strangely often to the seeming innocence of its African characters, who – despite their mastery of multiple world languages and proficient internet use – have apparently never heard of such diverse concepts as dentistry, Hitler, Christmas trees, chickenpox or the second World War. Undoubtedly many people go about their lives content not to know about dentistry, and why not, but the novel’s fixation on this point struck an uncomfortable note. When Osarobo frowns briefly at a map, Richard decides that the young man “has never before seen a map of any city or country on earth”. But Osarobo already mentioned that he’d used the metro in Naples and Milan – hard to accomplish without at least glimpsing a metro map.
Likewise, despite the politically charged nature of the refugees’ situation, Richard is reluctant to ascribe to them any political will. Watching sympathisers protest alongside the refugees, Richard concludes that while the sympathisers reject the basis of the political system, refugees are simply “trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic”. But if young white German protesters are capable of forming objections to an unjust system, why not black African refugees?
In writing a novel about an urgent humanitarian crisis, Erpenbeck is doing something difficult and, arguably, vital. "Must living in peace," the book asks us, "inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?" In the midst of this real-life moral disaster, when dozens of refugees drown every week on their journey to Europe, what is a European novelist to do? Go, Went, Gone may not provide the answers, but it seems to me that it is asking a compelling and timely question.
- Sally Rooney is the author of Conversations with Friends