The Refugee Problem in Germany

Jenny Erpenbeck has written THE most timely novel about refugees, although of course it’s just a coincidence that her book (which must have been written a few years back) was published just as Europe reached boiling point in discussions about the refugee crisis.

gehengingGehen, Ging, Gegangen [Go, Going, Gone] is the story of refugees, but (wisely, perhaps) Erpenbeck does not write it from the point of view of the asylum-seekers themselves. Instead, we become acquainted with them through an intermediary: a retired and widowed German classics scholar, Richard. This is very clever, because Richard represents any one of us who is ignorant but a bit curious about the plight of refugees, and then finds his mind and heart expanded through his regular contact with them. Yet he is by no means an altruistic saint: he hesitates and makes silly mistakes at first, and when he finds his house broken into at some point, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that one of ‘his’ refugee visitors has burgled him but cannot quite confront him with this. And, although there are hints of selfishness in his personal life (and talk about a mistress), at the very end of the book, we discover some additional things about his marriage which put him in a rather unflattering light.

So Richard is very human, rather lonely and bored, and he happens to pass in front of the Red Town Hall in Alexanderplatz in Berlin and sees a group of men on hunger strike, protesting and refusing to reveal their identities or nationalities. At first Richard keeps his distance.

As a child, he’d learnt all about hardship. But that’s no reason, just because someone is desperate enough to go on hunger strike, for him to starve. So he tells himself. It wouldn’t help the person on hunger strike.

Richard was born during the Second World War and grew up in East Germany, so throughout the book he contrasts the poverty and deprivation of the young men he encounters with the life of his friends and neighbours under Communism. He starts out with a scientific curiosity and a rather comically naive questionnaire for the refugees, who have been moved to a hastily repurposed old people’s home. Gradually, however, he opens up his own heart and allows the men themselves to open up and talk freely, all the while treading a fine line between pity and patronage, companionship and superiority. He begins to distinguish between the men coming from Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Syria, Chad, even Touaregs. He learns how to pronounce their names: tall Ithemba, quiet Abdusalam, shy Osarobo, massive Raschid (and initially thinks: all refugees can’t be doing too badly, if Raschid is so big). Sometimes he creates his own nicknames: young Apoll, sad Tristan, thin Caron, who believes in ghosts…

He helps out with their German classes, he invites some of them back into his home to play piano or to read Dante (his only book in Italian). He is often embarrassed when he is invited to eat with them, knowing how they struggle to live on the tiny sums of money allocated to them. Most of them are boat people, who landed on the shores of Italy, and so have no right to claim asylum in Germany. They want to work, they don’t want to live off charity. They miss and worry about their family back home. Slowly, Richard befriends them and starts believing that he and a small group of friends can make a difference, that it is all about personal relationships, about small-scale understanding. He wonders about the artificiality of borders, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that people are at such pains to maintain:

Was the dividing line, the trench, between them really so endlessly deep and that’s why it caused such turbulence? Was it between black and white? Between rich and poor? Between stranger and friend?… Between one language and another? And how many borders were there anyway in this one universe? Or, to put it another way, which was the real, ultimate border? Perhaps the one between the living and the dead? Or between starlit sky and the clod of earth that he stepped upon each day? Or between one day and the next?… If you think about all these possible borders, then it seemed to Richard that the difference between one human and the next is ridiculously tiny and no deep trench at all.

Author photo from Deutsche Welle.

Of course there is no conventional happy ending: all the refugees have to return to Italy or be deported. There are only 12 exceptions out of 476 cases – mostly because of attempted suicide or ill-health, in which case they have been given a few weeks or months’ additional permission to stay before being deported. So Richard and his friends jump in to help and offer accommodation and there is a final note of humanity and warmth, despite the sadness of the last few pages.

For a really excellent review of this book (which we hope will be translated soon into English, all the translations above are my own weak attempts), see Tony Malone’s blog. There is also a fascinating interview with Jenny Erpenbeck on Deutsche Welle about the problem of being ‘visible’ only as a refugee.

22 thoughts on “The Refugee Problem in Germany”

  1. Do hope this is translated soon Marina; sounds both a topical & an important story that should be read widely… when ‘jo public’ take stock and intervene action seems more forthcoming than when it is left purely in the hands of politicians.

    Ironically, last night we watched never seen before footage of the Holocaust and the liberation of the ‘death’ camps; the footage was being produced by Bernstein & Hitchcock until the governments halted the process believing the general public would rise up and demand the Jewish people should be offered refuge in the UK & USA… which apparently they didn’t want to happen. Some footage was shown at the end of the war but so much left unseen until now.

    1. Wow, that sounds manipulative… but, having just watched a theatre performance of ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ about WW1 and the misrepresentation of realities, it’s not surprising. Sadly.

      1. No… sadly not surprising; of course it was only one programme maker’s pov but it certainly rang true. Reminded me of how the Child Psychologist reports were deliberately misconstrued to get the women who worked during the war back in ‘their rightful place’ at home on the belief that’s what was best for ‘little Johnny’ when really it was to tackle rising unemployment of men returning from armed services.

  2. How prescient! Much more interesting, as you say, to write from the point of view of a former DDR citizen. I’ve often wondered the extent to which Angela Merkel’s East German upbringing played a part in her decision to open the doors to refugees. Very much hopeing this one will be translated soon.

    1. I’ve wondered about that too – but it can work both ways. The more extreme right-wing views tend to be in the former DDR part of Germany (and in some of the other formerly Communist countries). As in: ‘we’re still second class citizens in Europe, why should someone else come here and compete with us…’

  3. Oh, I hope it’ll be translated soon, too, Marina Sofia. It sounds like a very powerful look at the refugee situation from an interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Of course the situation has already become much more serious than when Erpenbeck wrote this book, so I think the public mood may be turning against such a book already…

  4. I’ll also be interested n reading this book when it’s translated. Sadly I don’t speak German. The refugee situation is very close to my heart, because of what’s happening in Greece today, and because Greeks have often been refugees themselves. We have that in our history. Also the last few years I’ve come into close contact with people who are expatriates living far from home: people from Eastern Europe, Egyptians, Philipinos…

    1. I heard that the Greek islanders are being put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize for their humanity towards the boat people… and at a time when things are not going well for the Greeks themselves. Yes, I also come from a country that has often been overrun by foreign powers and people have had to find refuge elsewhere, so it’s a subject close to my heart.

  5. The point of view sounds interesting, exploring the situation from Richard’s perspective – quite a nuanced character by the sound of things. I’m sure this will be translated pretty quickly, there must be a healthy appetite for more Erpenbeck, especially given the success of The End of Days.

    1. It was my first book by her and she has a curious style. Part of it was very dry and cold, almost repetitive (I suppose to reflect Richard’s life before he became involved with the refugees), and then it turns into long, convoluted sentences and reflections and emotion.

  6. It would be excellent to have this novel translated – a difficult issue which as you say is causing the citizens of Europe to examine what is the ‘right’ thing to do. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention

    1. No easy answers, I’m sure, but on a day when we read in newspapers that it is proposed that refugees in Cardiff should wear coloured wristbands, it seems very appropriate to read about the blindness of bureaucracy.

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