, , , , , , , , , , , ,

[The following contains spoilers.]

Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Go, Went, Gone was first published in 2015 and it appeared in English, translated by Susan Bernofsky, last autumn. The story is set in present-day Berlin and it potters about in the company of Richard, a widower and recently retired classics professor. Without the sub-Saharan asylum seekers who Richard duly comes to befriend, Go, Went, Gone would be emptier than Hamlet without the Prince. We would join Richard for solitary breakfasts over the newspaper, accompany him on eventless trips to the supermarket, and watch from the back door as he spent afternoon after afternoon doing chores around his garden. We and Richard would grow gradually mad with boredom together.

Richard first sees the asylum seekers when they are holding a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz but he doesn’t notice them. He gets a second shot when they are shown on television later that evening, with a sign that reads “We become visible.” Disturbed by how he missed the men, and also impelled by a more general curiosity, he invades their dormitories pretending to be a researcher.

If he is a nosey parker and potentially a nuisance, and if his tendency to liken the Africans to Odysseus or Apollo points to some neo-colonialism that he would do well to get out of his system, the story will remain relaxed about these foibles. Or rather, it will be patient. Nobody sends Richard packing. In an experience that ostensibly follows the format of a mid-life crisis, Richard finds that a new youthfulness is superimposed over his retirement, but this is a moral awakening rather than merely a change in lifestyle. He recognises the superfluity of the knowledge that he has gained over his long career. When he interviews the refugees, his ignorance of the modern world is nibbled away in an acid of questions: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation? How many people are in your family? What did the apartment or house you grew up in look like? How did your parents meet?”

In dribs and drabs, Richard welcomes the asylum seekers into his home; he will offer employment to some and gifts to others. His commitment to them begins to subtly resemble a marriage, a whole new life’s work of gladly assumed duties and responsibilities. Everything goes far more smoothly with the refugees than it had done with his original wife.

James Baldwin went to war against the liberal protest novel in his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” The novel under bombardment was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which had promoted the USA’s ballooning abolitionist movement through a clumsy mixture of moralistic vehemence and regressive black stereotypes. For Baldwin, these two aspects of the novel could not be taken separately. In his contention, the business of Stowe’s novel was not to honestly reaffirm the humanity of the slaves, but to rescue the reader’s soul from the disaster of being implicated in slavery.

Yet the problem was not only that the “theological terror” facing us, the liberal readers, was more vivid in Stowe’s fiction than the real-world suffering that had befallen them, the slaves. Rather, it was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had subliminally, if somewhat deviously, strengthened the distinction between them and us. The slaves had emerged from this protest novel as uncomplicated victims and wooden objects of pity, as beings who were not really wrought from the same familiar human materials as we are. So can Go, Went Gone avoid the sway of this treachery that Stowe and her school have left dormant and waiting within the protest novel?

There is less at stake in Go, Went, Gone because what needs to be saved is not Richard’s eternal soul but just his liberal credibility. The central question for us, though, is why Richard? Would this not be a much easier story if it was narrated from the perspective of the asylum seekers? Surely, in these circumstances, its morality would be altogether clearer-cut? The dilemma would be whether people who are locked out of a society should beg or steal from it (it’s steal, always steal). Instead, the dilemma in Go, Went, Gone is how a member of the middle class, of the establishment even, and certainly one with all of this story’s wealth and power, can help the situation more than if he was simply robbed. Indeed, at one point in the story Richard is burgled, and this causes us to ponder whether the robber is more dignified than those men who have been ushered into the professor’s house to be petted.

The answer, as it is in Leo Tolstoy’s classic worldview, is that Richard should enjoy his wealth a bit less pigheadedly and cultivate a finer sensibility. Since this is Germany, there are extra mitigating circumstances. Part of Richard’s rehabilitation involves him accessing his childhood memories of when Germany was occupied and his mother was a migrant. Moreover, he spent his youth on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall (like Erpenbeck herself) and so he has known hardship personally. He begrudges being made to feel guilty at having wealth but he can also empathise more authentically with those who have nothing. This way in which Richard is given a head start might annoy the reader and it does feel like a cop out. Wouldn’t the empathy that Richard eventually acquires be more impressive if he had been always comfortably off, as Tolstoy had been?

Nonetheless, one of the merits of this book is the difficulty that you have in marching it in any given direction. It is neither crass and bossy, like Stowe’s novel, nor the life-affirming epic of compassion that newspaper reviewers are all but programmed to describe it as (e.g., the Guardian fancies that this book “will… make us more aware and, it is to be hoped, more human”). For one thing, Richard’s empathy does not necessitate any ultra self-denial. After surrendering himself to the asylum seekers, his life is enriched by a benison of stories and knowledge, another one thousand and one nights. His diet also gets better: early in the story we find him munching alone on a rather grim-sounding salad and worrying about enjoying this meal whilst the refugees are starving; later, he shares zinging, hot, merrily communal meals with them.

With Richard’s apprehension at incidents in the refuge’s corridors, and with the awkwardly un-melodramatic confrontations between the protestors and the authorities, Go, Went, Gone often matches the slowness and studiousness of a low-budget documentary. You are henceforth unprepared for the dramatic, soft-footed rush of the novel’s ending. The solidarity that Richard feels with the asylum seekers is no longer that of the wealthy man who has condescended to open up his home to the poor, but of the lay initiate who is unburdening himself of his secrets to his brethren. But before looking at this, we must take in the man in the lake.

The man in the lake is the weakest feature of this novel and it is here that the realism registers the most strain. This is admittedly the single worrying crack in an otherwise hefty dam, since there are numerous fine and discerning judgements within the novel’s realism. Richard becomes wistfully attracted to a young teacher and the story refuses to give him any encouragement whatsoever. You can take a bunch of lonely loose ends such as these and, as this novel does, you will sharply capture the force of real life.

Where this credit begins to be eaten into is with the man in the lake. A swimmer has accidentally drowned in the lake beside Richard’s home and his body remains unrecovered. Pleasure-seekers now avoid the lake. This man looms rigidly, like a totem pole, throughout the story. He is a scapegoat or a lost Christ who couldn’t walk upon the water; the shining lake is a reminder that men can disappear, losing their names and bodies, dissolving until only a statistic or the driest of reports remain. The trouble is that the unnaturalness of this device will not satisfactorily dissolve within the narrative’s realism.

The man in the lake finds successive, clumsy echoes in Richard’s story, as though Erpenbeck has strategically planted a tree and we are now continually treading on the fruit. Richard’s mind comes to rest on a corpse that had dissolved in the desert sand dunes; and on Libyan soldiers who break the SIM cards of their captives’ cellphones, destroying the men’s memories; and, of course, on all of those bodies that litter the floor of the Mediterranean. Erpenbeck might as well erect a sign beside the lake that reads, “Twinned with Lampedusa.” Finally, Richard’s mind gives up its deepest secret, before all of his new brothers, of the shame that had lain below the surface of his marriage, just like – ouch, we’ve stepped on another one! – the man in the lake.

Without this artifice, and left with undiluted realism, we might come to reject Richard’s empathy for being a personal rather than an actively social response. We might suspect that there is no connection between being able to empathise with the refugees and finding a political solution to their mistreatment.

If we explored the tender cultural practices of oil executives, for example, then it would humanise them and we would view them afresh, understanding their own worries and aspirations. Erpenbeck’s refusal to raise the spectre of Cologne, and of the supposed culture of sexual predation amongst some Muslim refugees, comes across as forthright and very likeable. How brave it is to dismiss these sex attacks as trivia! She goes too far, however, and the asylum seekers in her story end up being cast as the deserving poor. It would be far better not to humanise the refugees at all but to treat them as mere units with a theoretical right to asylum. It shouldn’t matter whether Richard likes them or whether they spurn him – it isn’t about him, after all! Africa hasn’t been devastated in order to help his moral development. There should be no more of this moral bumbling! We should just let the refugees in!

With one interviewee, Richard is “seized by the hope that this young man’s innocence [of Hitler] might transport him once more to the Germany of before, to the land already lost forever by the time he was born. Deutschland is beautiful.” No chance! – there are still plenty of ghosts bumping around in this story. Erpenbeck tacitly blends “the Camps” that Richard’s mother had claimed to be unknowledgeable about with the refugees’ own headquarters. Richard thinks of the refugees that, “if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.” But Hitler’s monumental campaign, involving Europe-wide infrastructure, to exterminate millions of people is not remotely comparable to Germany’s current dismay at taking in a few more asylum seekers. In the same breath that Erpenbeck warns about the Nazi past, she comes perilously close to denying the scale of the Holocaust.

Richard is repeatedly brandishing salacious newspaper articles that have incited waves of bigoted comments and letters from their readers. Correspondingly, his own talk at an academic conference, his first professional act since encountering the refugees, does not trigger a single remark from his colleagues. With this, Go, Went, Gone largely gives up on society and it instead focuses on the personal sphere, where Richard has achieved such distinction as a member of the empathetic elite.

Erpenbeck warns that we cannot rely upon Germany’s “iron law” or its state bureaucracy for social justice. If she depicts the public as a thoughtless, intolerant rabble, the implications of her own stance might be similarly inconsiderate. She tries to deal a prompt blow to those who are forgetting the past, only to land one on herself. How can Germany be really cleansed of its Nazi past if it continues to hold the wisdom of the demos in such distrust? Isn’t Erpenbeck reflecting the same prejudice as the Nazis when they had judged democracy to be unreliable and cancelled it?

Thus whether Erpenbeck manages to humanise her supplicants is a moot point. There are vast regions outside of the novel’s story that remain inhuman and stereotyped – the workaday world of ordinary people.