Only con­nect

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Er­pen­beck trans­lated by Susan Ber­nof­sky Por­to­bello, 286pp

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Eileen Bat­tersby

Dis­place­ment has moved be­yond a lit­er­ary theme; for mil­lions, it is re­al­ity. The no­tion of war has been over­taken by up­heaval, which forces des­per­ate peo­ple to flee with­out hope of a fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, al­low­ing his­tory to re­peat it­self, re­lent­lessly. This is the hu­man­is­ing lens through which Jenny Er­pen­beck, Europe’s out­stand­ing lit­er­ary seer, views our world.

Pre­vi­ously she had looked to the lay­ered his­tory of her own coun­try, Ger­many, in daz­zling meta­phys­i­cal fic­tions such as Vis­i­ta­tion and The End of Days. As a Ber­liner born in the for­mer East Ger­many in 1967, her early ex­pe­ri­ence was dom­i­nated by liv­ing in a di­vided city within a frac­tured coun­try; her work sug­gests that she be­lieves hu­man un­der­stand­ing re­sides in mem­ory.

Her new novel res­onates with an un­ex­pected sim­plic­ity that is pro­found, un­set­tling and sub­tle. The prose, as be­fore as­tutely trans­lated by Susan Ber­nof­sky, has re­lin­quished the­atri­cal­ity in a con­ven­tional, calm and at times wry nar­ra­tive. It fol­lows Richard, a self-con­tained wid­ower and newly re­tired aca­demic, as he dis­cov­ers em­pa­thy through delv­ing into the in­di­vid­ual or­deals of a group of African asy­lum seek­ers in Berlin whom he grad­u­ally be­friends and tries to help.

As the novel opens, the for­mer clas­sics pro­fes­sor is deal­ing with the prospect of re­tire­ment. His self­ab­sorp­tion dic­tates his daily rou­tines; he is Ev­ery­man mind­ing his patch. It is only when watch­ing the evening news that he re­alises he had walked by 10 African men stag­ing a hunger strike. “Why didn’t Richard see th­ese men at Alexan­der­platz?” When the anony­mous protest is ended, he re­gards it as a pity. “He’d liked the no­tion of mak­ing one­self vis­i­ble by pub­licly re­fus­ing to say who one is. Odysseus had called him­self No­body to es­cape from the Cy­clops’s cave.” From the open­ing pages, Er­pen­beck makes clear that this cul­ti­vated aca­demic knows lit­tle about Africa. “Where is Burk­ina Faso?” he won­ders, and is sur­prised to learn that there are 54 African coun­tries.

The book could eas­ily have be­come a wellinten­tioned polemic, but Er­pen­beck com­bines her philo­soph­i­cal in­tel­lect with hours of con­ver­sa­tions con­ducted with refugees to tell a very hu­man story about a lonely, emo­tion­ally in­su­lated man slowly dis­cov­er­ing there is a far wider, ur­gent world be­yond him through his meet­ings with ex­tra­or­di­nary, vividly drawn mi­grants, each with a story to tell.

Richard helps the men, re­spond­ing to their in­ter­ests, con­trast­ing in­di­vid­ual cul­tures and spe­cific dilem­mas, whose ag­o­nies make him re­call tales from the Broth­ers Grimm. The refugees have noth­ing ex­cept their mem­o­ries and their mo­bile phones – their sole links with fam­ily, friends and who they once were.

Great fic­tion doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be true. Er­pen­beck’s pow­er­ful tale, de­liv­ered in a won­der­fully plain, can­did tone, is both real and true. It will alert read­ers, make us more aware and, it is to be hoped, more hu­man.

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