John Klassen


Jenny Erpenbeck
Erpenbeck (1967-) was born in East Berlin. She became an opera director and has several productions to her credit. In the 1990s she turned to writing and became a substantial literary presence with her books: The Old Child, The Book of Words, Visitation, The End of Days.

Major themes in these books are the interpretations of history at various levels, the power and vagaries of memory, fate, death, all explored with lucid, direct prose. The wonderful prose continues in her latest book and we can see themes from her earlier works that come to the fore in Go, Went, Gone.

Go, Went, Gone
Richard is a retired classics professor who lives in Berlin. His wife died a few years earlier and Richard now faces a fairly routine existence. He has no large goals or ambitions and isn’t quite sure what he will do with himself in retirement. One day he becomes aware of a tent camp of African refugees in a Berlin square; his curiosity is aroused, even more so when the refugees are given various promises and moved to proper, though substandard, shelters. Richard becomes a regular visitor, initially out of an almost academic interest, but more and more because of his compassion for the men he gets to know and his frustration and anger with the legal system designed to ignore and even deny the existence of people behind the refugee file numbers.

A reviewer looking at Erpenbeck’s early work, wrote: “If Erpenbeck’s novels and novellas are “East German”, it expresses itself not so much in content as in form – an urge to break with the conventions of linear storytelling because it simply doesn’t reflect experience. In a country whose borders were redrawn as frequently over the last two centuries as they were in Germany, the promise of a straightforward narrative can seem hollow.”

In an interview with CBC Radio in 2015, Erpenbeck said, “The beginning of being interested in the connection of the private and historic life is with our own family history. There were so many persons fleeing or emigrating or just wandering around. When I write, I look at the private stories, but in the same moment, I am always looking at the other great historic changes in Germany and in Europe. If you look at the last hundred years, you have to face all of these changes. They didn't change just the political order, it was really moving people around, it was really like losing places, the cities have been bombed, the Communists had to emigrate, millions of people were killed. It's not possible not to look at it."

Here we have two themes that resonate strongly through Go, Went, Gone. First is the idea of boundaries that are not just physical, but also moral, ethical, and no less forceful for, at times, even being imaginary: “When taking all these possible differences into consideration, it seems to Richard that the difference between one person and another is in fact ridiculously small...it’s just a matter of a few pigments in the material that’s known as skin in all the languages of the world...”. RIchard’s enlightenment is fuelled by his growing awareness of the gaps between the rhetoric of welcoming and helping refugees, and the realities of legal restrictions plus the casual, as well as overt, racism that sharply undermines facilitation: “Must living in peace...inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

As in her earlier novels, Erpenbeck constructs private lives to examine the impact of great historic change, in this instance, the movement of refugees into Europe and particularly into Germany. She brings the refugees alive as individuals and gives them human dimensions with the enormous pressures and losses that they have suffered, against which their futures have no horizon. Towards the end of the novel this phrase appears alone on two pages facing another: “Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?” On the surface, a fairly innocuous question, but in the context of refugees cut off from the past, present, and future that define a person, it is a profound query.

Erpenbeck also deals with the uniqueness of memory among the refugees. One man cannot expunge the memories of the dead lying in the street in his home town. Another says to Richard that, “When you become foreign, you don’t have a choice.” And Richard realizes that, “the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others—people with the freedom to choose—get to decide which stories to hold on to....A life in which an empty present is occupied by a memory that one cannot endure, in which the future refuses to show itself, must be extremely taxing...since this is a life without a shoreline...”

Early in the novel, Richard takes out his copy of The Odyssey and reads his “favourite” part: Chapter II. This is not happenstance on Erpenbeck’s part because Chapter II provides a strong metaphor for the journey that Richard will go through with the refugees he befriends. Chapter II is where Telemachus, at the urging and with the assistance of Athena, sets out on his own voyage to try to determine whether Odysseus is dead or alive. Telemachus is described in the Greek as napios which means “disconnected” as in he is disconnected from the ancestors, and disconnected intellectually, morally, and emotionally. This is the parallel with Richard who has had a comfortable, unchallenged, conventional, safe life but as he engages more and more with the refugees and their lives, he grows intellectually, morally, and emotionally. His life, like that of Telemachus, moves onto a completely different path.

Richard lives on a small lake in which a man accidentally drowned the previous summer. His body was never recovered, so people living around the lake no longer enjoy it for swimming or boating. This image is presented early in the novel and recurs from time to time. The drowned man is a powerful metaphor for the refugees: he has been removed from his world through no fault or volition of his own, indeed, clearly against his instincts; the past of the drowned man no longer exists and the future is only decomposition in the limbo of a foreign environment; the mere existence of the drowned man is a source of unease and even fear that the body might emerge somehow into sight and disrupt the patterns of life in our upper world.

This is a compassionate novel in its exploration of the men behind the label of refugee; it is an angry novel for the persistence, and consequences, of fear and shunning of the ‘other’; and it is a scathing indictment of the national and international laws, and their bureaucratic applications, that provide the bare necessities of life but frustrate what is needed to feed the soul and to build some sort of future, some aspirations, rather than endless days and months and years of just existing.

Tags: John Klassen