A Broken Story: Jenny Erpenbeck's Refugee Novel

Overseas, Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel has carried her to fresh levels of acclaim. She’s won not only the Thomas Mann Prize, in her native Germany, but also Italy’s Strega Europeo, something of a Booker for the Continent. Now the book is out in this country, under the title Go, Went, Gone, and though Erpenbeck’s four previous have won critical esteem—the New York Review of Books deemed her last novel “ferocious as well as virtuosic”—here, too, the new work could well generate broader recognition.

Go, Went, Gone tackles an issue that’s made headlines—namely, the plight of African refugees in Europe. Also the author presents the material in a straightforward fashion unusual for her. She has a single protagonist, Richard, a retired Berlin professor beset by upheavals both personal and global. The old man gets drawn into several refugee cases, working with desperate men out of Libya and elsewhere, and their tragedies draw him out, they move him to action, in a classic personal reawakening.

Not surprisingly, when Erpenbeck and I sat down to talk on a hotel balcony over central Berlin, she resisted such a simple reading.

“I have so many different voices in this novel,” she pointed out. “It’s a broken story, told in pieces, by different voices.”

Still, I pressed, wasn’t this a departure for her? To stick with one player in one locale?

“Every biography winds up broken,” she argued. “Every life suffers a cut, even if from chapter to chapter, they stay in the same place.”

The author views her new novel as of a piece with her two previous ones. Both Visitation (2010) and The End of Days (2014) shuttled among different characters and settings, sometimes both at once. The earlier novel worked with a single place, a property on one of Germany’s Brandenburg lakes, set up as an estate in the 1930s. Each brief chapter introduces fresh tenants, caught up in the agonies of changing times. Assimilated Jews grow frantic, seeking safe haven, and then a well-connected Nazi falls prey to the East German Stasi. As for The End of Days, also translated by the gifted Susan Bernofsky, it moves through the same tumultuous century by way of alternative lives. The five chapters each develop a different life for the same woman, always born in what was then Austria-Hungary. In one episode, she grows into a disaffected teenage Jew, a proto-Goth in First World War­–Vienna, and there, heartsore, arranges for a young man to shoot her. An incarnation during the Soviet era finds her in a mining commune out by Tashkent, where she’s too much of a freethinker for the local KGB—though at chapter’s end, in the miners’ fires, the woman’s ashes mingle with those of others, their spirits lingering, whispering of better. This ghostly gambit has precedents, naturally, just as the conceit of Days recalls Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, yet throughout, Erpenbeck displays a moxie and poetry all her own. In both, she 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.

In conversation, on a balcony above the traffic of Berlin Mitte, once or twice she grew frustrated with her English. The real challenge, however, was the breadth of her thinking. Now fifty, a product of rigorous East German schooling, Erpenbeck has a second career as an opera director and a range of references from Sophoclean drama to ISIS terror. Every answer covered a lot of ground —and this included the points of contact between her previous novels and her latest. Go, Went, Gone, she felt, presents a natural extension.

“For all these men,” she told me, “Richard, too, there’s always a leave taking. Always that deep cut, when they’re forced to leave.”

In the professor’s case, the split is the same as confronted by Erpenbeck, namely, the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Since 1989, a Platz may look the same as it did under the Communists, but it’s changed radically.

“You know that after the Wall fell,” she told me, “from one day to the next, for some of us the rent was ten times higher? Then what lies under this surface Berlin, this prosperity? It’s like in Visitation, this question of surface.”

Go, Went, Gone, in an early passage, meditates on how surface misleads us; it posits “language as a skin.” But at the same time, events are drawing Richard beneath his own consoling surfaces. Though he can’t say just why, he joins an inchoate protest at an abandoned school, occupied by refugees. There the professor can’t resist a peek at the bathroom. He finds the place “hideous,” to be sure, and it triggers an ingenious aperçu about recent history: “Is the only freedom the fall of the Berlin wall brought him,” Richard wonders, “the freedom to go places he’s afraid of?” For this man, the answer is that he must go; newly widowed and no longer working, in these ruins he confronts his own displacement—the “cut” Erpenbeck was speaking of.

She went on to note that Richard’s first connection with the refugees comes via a protest sign that reads, “We become visible.” “If you have your biography broken in two,” she asked, “then what is your identity? How do you make this visible? A refugee in Germany, to become visible he must cross yet another border, an immaterial border.”

Making that journey—initiating a conversation between comfortable North and indigent South—provides the core drama of Go, Went, Gone. The title itself implies movement, and the English strikes Erpenbeck as particularly apropos, because “it speaks in different voices, the same as the book.” Translator and author have achieved such rapport, she said, that Bernofsky knows “when I need an ancient word, or when I need to make music.” But the multi-vocal music of this novel, a call and response between a former Classics prof and several hand-to-mouth illegals, itself demanded a trek.

“It takes thirty pages,” Erpenbeck pointed out, “just to get Richard together with the Africans. From the first I knew they’d meet, but it takes thirty pages!”

Richard’s background, his head full of Ovid and Lucretius, lends the effort aspects of a quest. He draws up a list of questions for the refugees, basic research really, yet nothing anyone on this side of the Mediterranean has cared to ask: “How many people are in your family? What did the apartment or house you grew up in look like? How did your parents meet?” Similar questions were part of Erpenbeck’s preliminary work, naturally. Her acknowledgements open with thirteen African names and thanks for “many good conversations.” During our interview, too, she expressed her gratitude—but also her frustration.

“Do you know I was the only writer there?” she asked. “I would go to the places of asylum, and there’d be church people or others trying to help, but I’d be the only writer, the only one actually trying to find out something?”

In Richard’s case, as he works through his interviews, he can’t put his finger on just what’s driving him. “All he knows,” Erpenbeck explained, “is the shock of the existential break. His Germany is no longer the same, even at times the words he chooses.”

But while the skin of language won’t stretch over the Richard’s inner vacancy, his creator always had a firm grasp on what she was about.

“Other writers wanted to talk about love,” Erpenbeck grumbled, “about empty modern lives, things like that. But I thought: We are living side by side with stories like I grew up with, stories out of the deep experience of trying to survive. In the stories I grew up with, it was Jews trying to survive the Fascists. But now too, we are living with stories that will make history. These are in our own city, in a parallel world just under the surface, and again, people are simply trying to survive.”

But much as she needed to delve into that “deep experience,” Erpenbeck went on, “the story of the Africans’ escape to Europe wasn’t my main interest.” Go, Went, Gone includes such incidents, but these are sketched in jagged, post-traumatic shorthand: “Dead people everywhere in the streets.” The author found as she pursued her interviews that “the really interesting part is what came before. Since they didn’t come here of their own free will, what did they grow up expecting?” She, too, wanted to hear of the old house, the parents and their courtship.

“In my book,” she declared, “every refugee reaches the point where he must speak of this, his lost world. The world before the break in the biography—the hardest thing to speak of.”

For Richard, the answers emerge crabwise, in exchanges that must overcome differences not only in language but also in gesture and reference. The conversations go beyond “good dialogue,” generating electricity and illuminating civilizations largely unknown. A handsome Tuareg in his twenties, out of what’s now Niger, never reveals his name (Richard knows him only as “Apollo”), yet he demonstrates a remarkable knack for languages and educates his interlocutor on the destruction of a way of life that went back millennia. The Tuareg, we learn from his story and those of others, may be the largest tribal culture in West Africa, but their ancient domain itself suffered a deep “cut,” at the end of the colonial era. After 1960, new borders broke up their territory, deliberately; the white man, on his way out, took care to forestall interference with his economic interests.

“Our history,” insisted Erpenbeck, “continues to be deeply connected to what drives these refugees to flee. We continue to do business in their countries, and indirectly or directly we destroy structures that had kept them stable.” Her own interview subjects, she pointed out, included “a man of the royal court.” Most Berliners, seeing him, would think “this is just another homeless African. But we ought to realize, when you consider the journey, a trial most people undertake for the sake of their families, and one that demands a tremendous effort of the will—when you consider all that, in many ways what we’re getting in Europe is the elite.”

This is the novel’s essential tragedy, leavened only by a couple of small improvements Richard brings off. He can help Karon, from Ghana, set up his family on a small piece of property—in scenes that render Europe’s immigrant underworld unforgettably—but he can’t stop the system from grinding up Karon himself. He can’t help any of these refugees suture the pieces of their lives together, returning to wholeness in Berlin. As Richard comes to know these men, and all they might contribute to this country, he’s also forced to learn about Dublin II, the regulations that govern asylum seekers on the Continent.

Legal arcana like Dublin II, drawn up without public oversight and ever more draconian, would hamstring most novelists. In Go, Went, Gone, a couple of passages strain, rhetorically or dramatically, but by and large, the law’s deepening chill is well rendered; we suffer with its victims. None of Richard’s refugees can stay on in Germany. They landed in Italy, boat people, and under the regulations Italy remains the lone place in Europe where they’re allowed legitimate work.

“It’s inhuman,” Erpenbeck asserted. “The impact is the same as in the Nazi race laws. In both cases, the main idea is to exclude others from the European society. Exclusion, that’s all it’s about.”

The comparison recalls one of the novel’s clarion lines, an insight Richard has concerning the Africans: “only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.” Much of my interview with Erpenbeck seemed like an amplification of that challenge. At a few junctures she sounded like a politician: “We create the conditions that push the refugees out, like globalized industry, and then we tell them, ‘Okay, we can’t have you here.’”

Dismayed as Erpenbeck was by the refugees’ plight, however, our conversation never strayed far from aesthetic matters. I brought up the novel’s echoes of W. G. Sebald, with its professorial central consciousness and its penchant for raising the dead. At times Richard senses “all the . . . murdered during the so-called Third Reich . . . walking beside him on the street.” The author called the comparison “a compliment,” and reminded me that The End of Days has an epigraph from Sebald. But this new novel takes one of its opening quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. When Erpenbeck praised Sebald’s ability “to look at one place and see many stories,” this took her swiftly back to the “parallel world” here beneath the balcony on which we sat: “A world in which lives go on unknown to us.” She preferred to talk about “those lives, making history now,” rather than her distinguished literary forebear.

“The time to write about these lives is now,” she declared, “not fifty years from now.”

The work of Go, Went, Gone clearly engaged this author like nothing before. A woman who’d previously played fast and loose with time and space tethered herself to real-world research, to interviews and fieldwork, outside her comfort zone. If this sounds like the classic recipe for the social novel, the naturalisme of Émile Zola, so be it. There’s no reason another sort of sensibility can’t take on such fiction, stirring in a few ghosts and a few lines of Ovid. To work within fresh constraints, in the luckiest cases, results in a fresh career benchmark.

John Domini’s latest book is the linked-story collection MOVIEOLA! (Dzanc, 2016). His fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon, will be published by Dzanc in 2019.