What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.
The story of Go, Went, Gone
Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.
Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.
Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)
And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.
When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)
Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.
As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.
I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …
As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.
The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.
The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.
So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.
At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)
Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.
I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
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