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.