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.
Gehen, 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.
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.