The novelist Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, which means that she grew up in a country that no longer exists. The shock of the disappearance of the German Democratic Republic, with all its socialist ideals and secret police realities, has left her with an acute sense of the contingency of history. In her book The End of Days, which appeared in the U.S. in 2014, Erpenbeck wrote about the German twentieth century by telling the story of a single life that could have ended in various ways, at various moments. The main character is seen to die first as a baby, then as a teenager, and so on, with each potential death sending the lives of those around her careening down very different paths.
In Go, Went, Gone, her new novel, Erpenbeck is once again obsessed by the moral significance of chance in human lives. This time, however, her subject could not be more contemporary: she is writing about immigration, the mass movement of peoples from the global South to the North, which over the last several years has transformed the politics of Europe and America. Fiction has not been slow to catch up with this phenomenon: earlier this year, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West offered a fable about immigration, imagining a world in which refugees from the Middle East could walk through magic doors and appear in London or San Francisco.
Erpenbeck takes a more conventionally realistic approach to the subject. indeed, Go, Went, Gone is a very earnest book, its every page designed to force the reader — in the first instance, the German reader — to confront the human realities behind today’s refugee crisis. Our proxy is the novel’s lightly drawn protagonist, Richard, a widowed professor who has just been forced into retirement; when we first meet him, he is resentfully cleaning out his university office. Isolated and needed by nobody, Richard finds a source of interest, and then of meaning, in his interactions with a group of African refugees living in Berlin. Over the course of the book, he meets several of these men and forges an uneasy friendship with them, hearing the stories of how they came to Germany and learning about the unforgiving political and bureaucratic forces that keep them always on the move.
Africans represent only a small fraction of current immigrants to Germany. Of the million people who came seeking asylum in 2015−16, the majority were from war-torn Syria and Iraq. By choosing to focus on the relatively small number of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa — including Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana — Erpenbeck is able to sidestep the largest political, cultural, and economic questions raised by mass migration. There is no prospect of these particular refugees transforming German society, demographically or in any other way. This enables Erpenbeck to frame the German response to immigration as a purely individual and moral question — really, as a matter of hospitality rather than politics. Richard’s awakening to the duty of compassion is presented, somewhat didactically, as a model for the reader, and for Europe as a whole.
This awakening begins when Richard sees a TV report about ten Africans who have launched a hunger strike at a refugee encampment in Alexanderplatz, a large square in central Berlin. As it happens, Richard had been there that very day, but he hadn’t noticed the refugees — a failure of attention of which he becomes increasingly ashamed. This shame is idiosyncratic, since all of us are constantly hearing about suffering in the world, yet we continue to lead our lives: “His going hungry would do nothing to help one of these striking men,” Richard tells himself. But for a German of his generation — he was born at the end of the Second World War — there is something especially uncomfortable about this kind of excuse. His mother “hadn’t known about the camps. At least that’s what she said,” he reflects; but not knowing about injustice, at a certain point, becomes a form of collusion with it.
Richard does not suddenly experience a religious conversion, selling everything he has and giving it to the refugees. But in a series of tentative interactions, he comes to the realization that their world is not, in fact, separate from his own, as the privileged like to think about the unprivileged. He pays visits to the detention center where the refugees are temporarily held and starts to hear about the journeys that brought them from Africa to Germany, usually via Libya. He hears about the terrors of the Mediterranean crossing, and what it is like to see your own children drown in front of you. He hears the refugees’ desperate desire, not for charity but for the opportunity to work, to take responsibility for their own lives.
But are any of us really responsible for our good or bad fortune? It is a question especially pertinent to Germans of her generation, Erpenbeck suggests, since they grew up in a postwar order shaped entirely by occupying powers: America in the West, Russia in the East. “Neither the material prosperity on one side nor the planned economy on the other could be explained by any particular trait of the German citizens in question,” Richard thinks. “So what was there to feel proud of?” If Germans were not responsible for either the success of capitalism or the failure of socialism, how can they hold Ghanaians or Nigerians responsible for the problems that forced them to emigrate — especially since the roots of those problems lie in European colonialism?
Is it fair, Richard wonders in another passage, that his own to-do list includes petty items like “urologist appointment” and “meter reading,” while his new friend Karon’s would read “Eradicate corruption, cronyism, and child labor in Ghana”? The answer, of course, is that it is not, because the world is fundamentally unjust. The hard question, which Go, Went, Gone does not directly address but unavoidably raises, is how far we are morally obligated to remedy this injustice. How can the lucky and guilty people of Europe justify hoarding their good fortune, while the people of Africa and the Middle East suffer and die? Are borders themselves morally defensible? The questions could not be more pertinent for American readers, though the specific circumstances are different. Erpenbeck, a Berliner, grew up in the shadow of an infamous wall; it has left her with a lifelong hatred for walls that we would do well to learn from.