Go, Went, Gone / Jenny Erpenbeck; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New York: New Directions Books, 2017.
After finishing a string of novels that all seemed concerned in some way or another about women and procreation and all that comes of that, it was refreshing to read this current novel by Jenny Erpenbeck.
Not only does it not focus on procreation, it mostly looks at men and migration.
This story takes on the plight of refugees and migrants in Germany, centred in the experiences of Richard, a recently retired Professor of Classics. He is very privileged indeed, at the top of the heap - an educated white man in his own country with lots to live on and a sense of a solid life with pretty small first world problems to concern himself with.
But then he comes across a demonstration on Alexanderplatz - African migrants staging a hunger strike, trying to bring attention to their hopeless situation.
As Richard gets drawn in to the lives of this set of refugees once he volunteers to teach German at a temporary residence, he learns more and more about the impossible situation they are in. Bureaucracy means that they can't work in Germany without having papers, but not being able to work means they can't get papers. Various things like that reappear again and again - if they've landed in Italy they have to claim residence there, but can't unless other conditions are met which can't be met. It's painful to read the frustration and the stalled hopes of these refugees & migrants (almost entirely men in this book). Their back histories are slowly revealed as they trust Richard more and his desire to help expands. And not all interactions he has are glowing with joy; Erpenbeck is no Pollyanna. While some of Richard's friends think he is ridiculous, others start to understand more about what is happening, thanks to his newly awakened awareness.
This book takes on very timely themes of migration, our sense of identity, belonging, and entitlement, and the responsibility of us all to recognize our common humanity. Erpenbeck writes with intensity and with moral complexity; while it's a timely topic with political currency, this story is a story, not a screed. It's not a political pamphlet at all, rather, a deep and compassionate exploration of people and relationships, and the human connection we owe to one another. It was a thought-provoking and important read.