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Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone)

In Europe at least, the summer of 2015 will be remembered for the influx of thousands and thousands of refugees, mainly though certainly not solely from Syria. Jenny Erpenbeck’s book is therefore very timely, even though none of her refugees comes from Syria. Indeed, they come from various African countries (and not generically from Africa, as Vice-President Biden suggested, a remark which Erpenbeck mentions in her book).

The book starts with Richard, whose last name is not mentioned. Richard has just retired from the post of professor in classical philology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Richard was from the former East Germany and this is key to this novel, from the fact that he gets a lower pension than his former West German colleagues to his being often at a loss in finding his way round the former West Berlin. His wife had died. She had been a viola player but had lost her job after reunification and had become an alcoholic. He had cheated on her but his girlfriend had left him. He is now alone, with no partner, no children and no close relatives. This fact does not seem to bother him. He has great plans for his retirement, including travelling, reading Proust and listening to music. Since his wife’s death, he had put all his efforts into his work and now he has a lot of free time. He lives by a lake, in a house just outside Berlin and has a boat but which he has been reluctant to use, ever since someone drowned but his body never resurfaced. (This gets mentioned on several occasions and is obviously a somewhat ponderous symbol.) However, he is at a loss what to do. Richard wartet, aber er weiß nicht, worauf. Die Zeit ist jetzt eine ganz andere Art von Zeit. [Richard waits but he does not know what for. Time is now a completely different form of time.]

One day he gets a phone call from a friend, Peter, an archeologist. While exploring Alexanderplatz, archeologists have found some underground chambers, possibly from the Middle Ages, and he has invited Richard to come and look at them. We know that there is a hunger strike going on in Alexanderplatz by some refugees. They refuse to eat and then refuse to drink. They want work. The authorities say that they must obey the law and that they will not be blackmailed. Richard goes to Alexanderplatz, walks past the hunger strikers, visits the excavations and then walks back past them, on the way home. He does not see them either time. (One of the issues of the refugees was that they were invisible and wanted to become visible.) He does, however, see them on the news that night and cannot understand why he did not notice them. He remembers how he and his mother were caught up in the chaos at the end of the war and how his father did not come home till much later. But the hunger strike is soon over and the refugees are taken away. Richard gets on with his life but he decides to read up about the refugees and the places they came from, about which he knows very little.

He hears about a meeting to be held at a school between the refugees, the locals and the authorities but the meeting gets out of hand and he leaves. While sitting in a park, where he had always sat and where others – office workers and locals – had sat, he finds that it has changed as the refugees are now camping out in tents near there and he is virtually the only white person in the park. But Richard thinks more about the refugee and feels he need to know more. The only way to do this is to talk to them. He prepares a detailed list of questions, about their origins, their reason for fleeing their countries, their culture and so on. The refugees have now been temporarily sheltered in a former old people’s home. He goes to the home and gives the impression that he is doing a research project. The official at the home assumes he is doing an official project and lets him in to talk to the refugees. He finds them lying in rooms with several people per room, generally of the same nationality. Most of them are doing nothing because there is nothing to do. Some are sleeping. Gradually, over the next few weeks, he speaks to them, asking them the questions on his list. He finds that they are from various African countries – Libya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso – about which he knows very little. He finds that they generally have horrific stories to tell, that they are not economic migrants and that each story is different. In other words, they are individual human beings and not just refugees, Africans or, as some of the Germans say, darkies.

Gradually, Richard gets to know them and becomes sympathetic to their cause. He tries, not alway successfully, to help them. He also learns about the complex rules that they are subject to. These include the Dublin II rules, which mean that the refugee is subject to the laws of the country into which s/he first entered Europe and that requests for political asylum must be made in that country and that country alone. As all the refugees Richard speaks to came in via Italy, having crossed over by boat from Libya, they are caught in something of a Catch-22 when trying to settle in Germany. As we learn more details of the rules, both the German national ones and the EU ones, we learn how complex they are and how difficult is is for the refugee to get asylum, to work and to legally earn money. Richard and others try to help (Richard pays lawyer’s fees for some of them) but to no avail.

The novel is about the refugees and there is no doubt about where Erpenbeck’s sympathies lie. The refugees are individual human beings and each one should have the opportunity to find his or her own way, with a proper job and be legally recognised, when they are genuine refugees (as the ones in this book are), i.e. fleeing not just to improve their financial lot but fleeing from the horrors taking place in their own countries. But Erpenbeck is not just preaching. She makes a strong comparison with the situation of the refugees and the situation of the former East Germans who had, in their way suffered (though, as she points out, not nearly as much as the refugees). She shows the indifference and, in some cases, overt hostility to the plight of refugees shown by many Germans, starting with Richard, who fails to see them as he crosses Alexanderplatz in the book. She also shows that part of their plight is caused by the European colonial legacy and, in case the Germans get too smug about this, she does not fail to mention Germany’s own colonial legacy. She shows that knowledge of each other’s cultures is often limited. One of the refugees had heard neither of Hitler or the Berlin Wall but, of course, there is a lot that the Germans had not heard about these countries, as Richard himself shows. Finally, I should mention her persistent reference to semiotics. Richard himself had studied and taught semiotics However, Erpenbeck/Richard make continual reference to signs, such as language as a sign system (a topic Richard had taught) to the cultural markers of the German young and those of the refugees.

That this book is very relevant to the current period (2015), perhaps more so than Erpenbeck realised, as the Syrian crisis only developed after she had written the book, is clear. That Erpenbeck’s sympathies are wholly with the refugees and against the legalistic and bureaucratic approach of the German and EU authorities is also clear. However, though the focus is on the refugees, Erpenbeck has tried not to write just a political plea for the refugees to be heard as individuals and not, as she puts it, just as legal cases. I am not sure that she has always succeeded but, whatever your views on the situation of the refugees, you will find that this is an excellent novel.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Albrecht Knaus
First English translation by Granta in 2017