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