We Become Visible: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Go, Went, Gone’

A group of asylum seekers stand in protest in Alexanderplatz. They refuse to eat. They refuse to speak. They hold a sign that reads:We become visible. So begins Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone.

In her latest novel, Erpenbeck sheds light on Europe’s refugee crisis and the harsh realities faced by asylum seekers. The narrative follows Richard, a retired professor of Classics. In the beginning, Richard fails to notice the protesters, despite the fact that he had passed through Alexanderplatz many times during their demonstration. Instead, he finds out about the protest on the evening news. Disturbed by his lack of awareness, Richard sets out to become involved in the lives of the refugees. He seeks them out, asks them questions and listens to their stories; out of their exchange grows immense compassion and will to action.

As a recent retiree, Richard is confined to the home; he takes boxes from the office and “incorporate[s] their contents into his private realm”. Not only is Richard restricted in space, but he is captive to habit. Erpenbeck lists the minutiae of Richard’s routine. Richard is reading the newspaper, drinking tea, buying groceries, or folding sheets. He goes through the motions.

But it doesn’t take much for Richard, a well-to-do European, to break free from daily patterns and constraints. Unlike the refugees who truly have nowhere to go, no work, no country to return to, Richard’s confinement is not prohibitive. As he engages with the protesters, he finds new work supporting their cause. When he invites migrants to stay in his home, his solitude unravels, private life is made public and ritual meals are transformed into social gatherings. For Richard, isolation is more of a habit than a necessary state of being.

If only Germany could do the same. Germany is certainly in the habit of isolation, but it need not remain that way. Germany, more than any other nation, should understand that habits may be broken, social constructs rearranged. For Richard and his East German friends Sylvia and Detlef, “the sense that all existing order is reversible has always seemed perfectly natural,” for they have known the collapse of German Socialism and the marriage of East and West. They realize that enemies can become neighbours overnight.

But Germany is loath to open its boarders to refugees. Erpenbeck condemns the German public for their ignorance and indifference. As Richard frets over African refugees who drowned on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, he finds others to be cruel and callous. On the internet, DontCare writes: “The only ones I really feel sorry for are the coastguard workers!” In an effort to highlight the absurdity of the policies that make life impossible for refugees, Erpenbeck is explicit. She cites the Dublin II regulation, and the 70,000 vacant assistant positions that Germany is unwilling to give to refugees; she even takes time to outline the official punishment for foreigners who have committed theft.

These political details don’t grow organically out of plot, but are deliberately arranged throughout the text. At times the narrative feels bogged down by facts. Still, this book would not be nearly as effective without them. Erpenbeck includes the specifics because they count. It is only in taking time to learn the details that we can understand, with acuity, the migrant’s dilemma and the impact of our apathy.

Erpenbeck also explores prospects for communication. She understands that you cannot will away a lifetime of cultural embeddedness by the snap of your fingers. Even Richard finds it difficult to keep all the Africans’ names straight, and applies nicknames like Tristan and Apollo, drawing on his European, academic background; Rashid, a refugee from Niger who Richard befriends, is quite like the thunderbolt-hurler. On the flip side, she understands that nobody enters into a new culture instantly or seamlessly. The African migrants are taking language classes and their German is fairly rudimentary. Their conversations with Richard aren’t particularly nuanced. Of course there remain shades of meaning that Richard will never grasp, himself lacking an African background.

When we struggle to communicate, it can be difficult to cultivate a sense of compassion. The African refugees seem so foreign to the Berliners. But Erpenbeck believes in a common ground. Her prose is simple, steady, and unaffected. As she does away with stylistic flourish, she achieves total clarity and opens a space for connection. Hers is a language that everyone may share.

The attempt to communicate is more critical now than ever. Germany’s September 2017 election marked increasing polarization within the country over issues regarding refugees. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, opposed to Angela Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants, took over 13% of the national vote. The AfD hopes to alter the German constitution to abolish asylum seekers’ right to individual hearings. They want to immediately deport all those with rejected applications regardless of the safety of their home nations. Not to mention, many members of the party have been accused of espousing neo-Nazi beliefs.

Erpenbeck speaks against the attitudes of the alt-right. She argues for a world in which borders do not have the final say on who is able to live and prosper. Richard wonders about the divide between human beings. Is there “one true critical border”? Is it “between languages?” “Those who call dinner fufu and those who call it stew?” “Is it between one day and the next?” We find that there are no real borders but only multiple habits and imaginary lines.

Erpenbeck uses fiction to approach the refugee crisis in a way that other mediums never could. Images of people-packed boats and crowded refugee camps flicker past us on television screens, but we have grown indifferent towards these endless reels. Erpenbeck offers another kind of witness; she offers a focused, meditative, and entirely human encounter with the crisis and its victims. As Richard watches the news he wonders, “what stories lay behind all the random images”.  Go, Went, Gone, provides us with these stories. They become visible.


6 Gay-Friendly Cities to Visit

Hey, straight cis people aren’t the only ones who need a vacation! Of course they generally don’t have to wonder if they might get beaten or killed on vacation just for holding hands with their partner or wearing clothes closest to their own gender identity. Still, LGBT tourism has becoming a thriving new business advent with cities around the world hoping to capitalize on wealthy queers looking for a fun getaway. In fact, many tourism websites of major cities now feature small blurbs about things for the LGBT traveler to enjoy. So whether you’re looking for international drag scenes, gay history, museums, nightclubs, or all of the above, here are six of the best gay cities to visit.

Prague, Czech Republic

While not quite as flashy or expensive as some other European tourist destinations, Prague is still a popular city for tourism due to its long history and breathtaking architecture. However, despite the breadth of history on display, Prague is still a remarkably progressive city within a country that has been generally progressive since the fall of communism, especially when compared to some of its close neighbors. Registered partnerships for gay couples were first introduced in the Czech Republic way back in 2006, and Prague held its first Pride Parade in 2011. Not to mention, the Czech Republic has been home to the huge annual multi-city queer film festival, the Mezipatra Queer Film Festival, for the last 17 years.

Philadelphia, USA

Philadelphia has had a thriving gay scene that dates back to the 1930s and ’40s, beginning with a few discrete bars and coffeehouses before emerging into a full-on “Gayborhood”, as it is affectionately known, with nightclubs, performance centres, bars, restraunts, and shops. In 2004 the city of Brotherly Love put out one of the first ever tourism ads directed toward LGBT folks, featuring the tagline “Get Your History Straight, and Your Nightlife Gay.”

Berlin, Germany

Prior to the Nazis, Berlin actually had a vibrant LGBT scene, with famous cabarets and a cosmopolitan flair for the diverse, not to mention the Institute for the Science of Sexuality (whose papers of groundbreaking research on gender and sexuality were all burned in 1933). It was a hub for gay European expats and artists such as the famous English writer Christopher Isherwood. Today, Berlin has revived this spirit with museums, arts institutions, clubs, and many queer bookstores.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio has always been a popular tourist spot in general, especially for LGBT folks. In fact, it’s been estimated that around a million LGBT people visit Rio de Janeiro every year, and it’s not hard to see why. With its incredible beaches, rich nightlife with clubs and bars, many shops, luxury hotels, and historical neighborhoods, Rio de Janeiro has earned its well-deserved spot on many lists as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Rio also has one of the biggest Pride Parades in the world and even gay-specific activities during the famous Rio Carnival.

Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa is frequently cited as being one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in Africa. Indeed, the post-apartheid constitution, written in 1994, outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and in 1998 the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that a law prohibiting consensual gay sex was unconstitutional, and South Africa has had marriage equality since 2005. Within Cape Town you can find beaches, nightclubs, and other fun attractions. Additionally, since 1994 Cape Town has hosted the Mother City Queer Project, a yearly costume festival meant to celebrate the multiple and diverse queer communities in Cape Town.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

You might think that the much larger tourist attractions of cities like Guadalajara and Acapulco would be on this list, but in recent years Puerto Vallarta has become a beacon of LGBT tourism in Mexico, attracting both international visitors as well as domestic tourists. Sitting right on the western coast of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta boasts beautiful beaches, pride celebrations since 2013, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants.

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Happy Halloween, Novella readers! With the end of October, we hope your month has been filled with ghouls, goblins, and other hellish creatures that relentlessly delight the strange masochist in all of you horror buffs. Keeping in spirit with the season for one last day is a new track from Toronto indie outfit Blitz// Berlin, premiering a stunning video that features a motley crew of atrocious creatures banding together to give a funeral worthy of a witch of Salem. Amidst the backdrop of the gorgeous cinematography is the new single “Jesus Shoes”; a chilly, airy track that is reminiscent of The Weeknd’s early days mixed with a hazy, house-ier version of Health.

As the year continues, we hope to hear more from Blitz // Berlin. After composing the critically acclaimed score for the 2014 feature horror film, Extraterrestrial, the band is set to release their debut album Distance, out on Wax Records later this year.

Spin Jesus Shoes below and have yourself a spooky, scary evening filled with booze, masked men, and terrifying midnight rituals!