The staid existences of elderly Berliners and the fraught, uncertain trajectories of African refugees intersect in Erpenbeck’s melancholy and affecting novel. The conduit for this intersection is the widowed Richard, a recently retired classics professor, whose search for an occupation leads him to a nearby nursing home where a group of refugees is housed while the government deliberates regarding their right to live and work in Germany. Becoming a regular visitor to the home, Richard befriends Awad, a Ghanaian who had been living in Libya before emigrating to Germany, and Rashid, whose family was violently attacked during a religious holiday in Nigeria and who has not seen his mother in 13 years. Awad, Rashid, and the other young men, with their stories of violence and loss, share the traumatic experience of entering Europe via a perilous maritime route, in which “the passengers below deck had no chance at all when their boat capsized.” Subtly, Erpenbeck (The End of Days) suggests that the refugees and the Germans have in common a history of displacement: Richard and his friends “are post-war children” who were citizens of East Germany, then saw the system “under which they’d lived most of their lives” collapse. The narrative emerges as an insightful call to conscience and an undeniable argument for our common humanity. (Sept.)
Dreamlike, almost incantatory prose.
Erpenbeck’s prose, intense and fluent, is luminously translated by Susan Bernofsky.
James Wood - The New Yorker
Wonderful, elegant, and exhilarating, ferocious as well as virtuosic.
Deborah Eisenberg - The New York Review of Books
In 18 essays, crafted with poetic precision and enriched by Jeffrey
Yang’s assiduous translation, Bei Dao depicts a cast of memorable characters with humor and insight: a tenacious family nanny always on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities; a talented schoolmate who sneaked across the border to Burma to join guerrilla forces; and the author’s father, a former government propaganda official and a moody authoritarian at home. Bei Dao devotes a long chapter to the universal theme of a troubled father-son relationship. The descriptive opulence of Bei Dao's prose evokes Beijing’s sights, sounds and smells.City Gate, Open Up, is clear and intimate, like the black-and-white snapshots scattered through thetext.
Calls to mind J.M. Coetzee, whose flat, affectless prose wrests coherence from immense social turmoil. By making the predicament of the refugee banal and quotidian, Erpenbeck helps it become visible.
Sam Sacks - The Wall Street Journal
The best novel to date about the migration refugee crisis, German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s
Go, Went, Gone (New Directions) felt both urgent and tender, taking on depicting Europe on the brink of its next profound changeas seen through the eyes of a professor from Berlin’s former East, a man who knows something of what it means to lose one’s place in the world.”
Acclaimed German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck has gone further than most in examining the ephemeral nature of human life. A heart-rending plea for universal tolerance and respect.
Anthony McGowan - The Big Issue
A retired widower and classics professor takes an interest in African migrants staging a hunger strike in Berlin and finds himself tumbling into a world of harrowing stories and men who share a common sense of loss.
This timely novel brings together a retired classics professor in Berlin and a group of African refugees. The risk of didacticism is high, but the book’s rigor and crystalline insights pay off, aesthetically and morally.
A highly sophisticated work.
Brilliantly understated ... Erpenbeck's economical prose lends existential significance to the most commonplace conversations, defined less by what they include than by what they omit.
The plight of asylum seekers as told through a retired university professor...Very moving.
This brilliantly understated novel traces with uncommon delicacy and depth the interior transformation of a retired German classicist named Richard. Erpenbeck possesses an uncanny ability to portray the mundane interactions and routines that compose everyday life, which she elevates into an intimately moving meditation on one of the great issues of our times. Her economical prose lends existential significance to the most commonplace conversations, defined less by what they include than by what they omit.
Andrew Moravcsik - Foreign Affairs
An extraordinary novel, bearing unflinching testament to history as it unfolds.
Neel Mukherjee - The New Statesmen
A nuanced depiction of people who have largely given up the luxury of hope and have little to do but wait. Erpenbeck bluntly reminds readers what is at stake for Germany and, by extension, the world. Atimely,
informed, and moving novel of political fury.
Brendan Driscoll - Book List
This new novel by the author of The End of Days and Visitation is full of departures and disappearances. It is both a gripping story about the life of the modern migrant and a meditation on how we all find meaning in life.
Erpenbeck is scathing about the absurdities of a nightmarish bureaucracy that appears to deliberately wrongfoot refugees. Deceptively unhurried, yet undeniably urgent, this is Erpenbeck’s most significant work to date.
Erpenbeck works with a dramatist’s impulse to extremes and a composer’s ear for the resonant phrase. She can catch a murmur on the air and send it echoing up and down a hundred tormented years.
Go, Went, Gone tackles an issue that’s made headlinesnamely, the plight of African refugees in Europe. It clearly engaged this author like nothing before. A fresh career benchmark.”
In this sobering, intellectually acute work, retired classics professor Richard lives alone in Berlin, pottering about his autumnal existence until he sees a news report featuring ten African refugees conducting a hunger strike before Berlin's Town Hall. He's struck by the idea that they have made themselves visible by refusing to say who they are and begins following their plight, finally visiting a facility where several have been moved after an agreement with the Senate. His motivations are initially self-serving; he wants to investigate the nature of time, "something he can probably do best in conversation with those who have fallen out of it." But as the men speak matter-of-factly of their lives and losses, he begins to realize his ignorance, drawing closer and even inviting a man named Osarobo home to play the piano. Meanwhile, Hans Fallada Prize winner Erpenbeck (Visitation), whose East German background informs the narrative, clarifies the wrong-headedness of Europe asylum laws as she reflects on borders that can and can't be crossed and the pain of moving beyond the surface of things. VERDICT Occasionally slow-moving but a stunning and intimate look into the refugee crisis; refreshingly, the characters don't finally embrace sentimentally but inch toward understanding.
Searching novel of the Berlin refugee crisis by Erpenbeck, considered one of the foremost contemporary German writers."The best cure for love—as Ovid knew centuries ago—is work." So thinks Richard, who, recently retired from a career as a classics professor, has little to do except ponder death and his own demise that will someday come. What, he wonders, will become of all his things, his carefully assembled library, his research notes and bric-a-brac? It's definitely a First World problem, because, as Richard soon discovers, there's a side of Berlin he hasn't seen: the demimonde of refugees in a time when many are being denied asylum and being deported to their countries of origin. His interest awakens when he learns of a hunger strike being undertaken by 10 men who "want to support themselves by working" and become productive citizens of Germany. For Richard, the crisis prompts reflection on his nation's past—and not just Germany, but the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, of which he had been a citizen (as had Erpenbeck). Richard plunges into the work of making a case for the men's asylum, work that takes him into the twists and turns of humanitarian and political bureaucracy and forces him to reckon with a decidedly dark strain running through his compatriots ("Round up the boys and girls and send them back to where they came from, the voice of the people declares in the Internet forums"). Richard's quest for meaning finds welcoming guides among young men moving forth from Syria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, some unable to read, one confessing that he has never sat in a cafe before, all needful strangers with names like Apollo, Rashid, and Osarobo. In the end, he learns from his experiences, and theirs, a lesson that has been building all his life: "that the things I can endure are only just the surface of what I can't possibly endure." A lyrical, urgent artistic response to a history that is still unfolding.
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, 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. Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.
Reviewer: Adam Kirsch
The Barnes & Noble Review