While literary worth is important in selecting books to publish, topical relevance certainly does no harm, so when a book by a well-known, successful writer is about to come out, and the subject matter is suddenly, unexpectedly, all over the world news, any publicity person would have a field day. Well, that’s the case with today’s book, with an old friend tackling a new subject at a time when the world is only too eager to find out what’s going on. Let’s see what she has to say…
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) (review copy courtesy of Knaus Verlag) is the German writer’s first work of fiction since the IFFP-winning Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) and a slight departure from her best-known works, eschewing her trademark style of crafting a novel from thematically linked stories. Instead, we have a fairly lengthy novel, focusing on one character whose struggles to face up to the prospect of a lonely old age are interrupted by encounters with people he never imagined he would cross paths with.
Richard, an emeritus professor and a classics expert, lives in a house by a lake in the suburbs of Berlin. A recently retired widower, he’s a man with few demands on his time (and little idea how to spend it) now he’s left his classes and research behind, so when he sees a news story about the occupation by African refugees of Berlin’s Oranienplatz (on a day he actually passed through the square), he decides he wants to learn more. Curiosity and boredom combine to make him take the first step on a journey which will change his life.
When the refugees make a temporary move to an old-people’s home in his suburb, Richard decides to visit the facility and conduct some interviews. As an academic, well schooled in the collection of facts, he believes he can make sense of the presence of the African men – in truth, he’s totally unprepared for what he is told:
“Der emeritierte Professor, der hier an einem Tag so vieles zum ersten Mal hört, als sei er noch einmal ein Kind, begreift nun plötzlich, dass der Oranienplatz nicht nur der platz ist, den der berühmte Gartenbauarchitekt Lenné im 19. Jahrhundert konzipiert hat, nicht nur der Platz, an dem eine alte Frau täglich ihren Hund ausgeführt, oder ein Mädchen auf einer Parkbank zum ersten Mal ihren Freund geküsst hat. Für einen Jungen, der unter Nomaden aufgewachsen ist, ist der Oranienplatz, den er anderthalb Jahre bewohnt hat, nur eine Station auf einem langen Weg, ein vorläufiger Ort, der zum nächsten vorläufigen Ort führt.”
p.70 (Knaus Verlag, 2015)
“The emeritus professor, who here in a single day is hearing so much for the first time, as if he is a child once more, suddenly grasps that the Oranienplatz is not just the square that the famous landscape architect Lenné designed in the 19th century, not just the square through which an old woman walked her dog every day, or where a girl kissed her boyfriend, on a park bench, for the first time. For a young man who grew up amongst nomads, the Oranienplatz, home for a year and a half, is just one station on a long journey, a temporary place, leading to the next temporary place.” *** (my translation)
The academic stance is soon set aside, and Richard gradually gets to know the refugees, unable to avoid becoming involved. The more he hears about their problems, the more he wants to help – but what can one man do…
I suspect that even in an age where people generally pay more attention to the Kardashians than world politics, most will be aware of what’s been happening in Europe over the past couple of months. After years of being on the edge of European consciousness, the Syrian conflict suddenly hit a lot closer to home, causing politicians and citizens alike to pay attention. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war zone and streaming across borders, all sorts of headaches have arisen for the countries of the EU, and it’s against this backdrop that Gehen, ging, gegangen has appeared, helping the reader understand why the refugees have come, and what they are expecting.
Richard acts as our voice, our way in to the world of the refugees, but it’s his loneliness that takes him there. His ‘research’ is less an academic endeavour than a way to fill the hole in his life, yet he finds that he actually has a lot in common with the people he talks to in the temporary facility. Yes, he’s a successful, well-off man, but he too has lost his family, drifting through his days in the hope of finding something to hold onto.
More important, perhaps, are the historical parallels between the old Germans and those who wish to join them. Richard and his friends are the final generation of those who experienced the war (in fact, both Richard and his wife survived miraculously as infants during the final days of the conflict). The former professor is well aware of the fragile nature of his fortune, the ‘was wäre wenn…’ (‘what if…’) of his early days harking back to Erpenbeck’s previous novel. Dwelling on his own good fortune in surviving the war, Richard struggles to understand how people who went through these hardships themselves can be willing to turn their backs on the new generation of refugees.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, Richard throws himself into finding out how the asylum procedure works in Europe, and it isn’t long before he comes to grips with what the major pillar of the policy really means:
“Richard versteht: Mit Dublin II hat sich jedes europäische Land, das keine Mittelmeerküste besitzt, das Recht erkauft, den Flüchtlingen, die übers Mittelmeer kommen, nicht zuhören zu müssen.” (p.85)
“Richard realises: by means of Dublin II, every European country without a Mediterranean coast has bought itself the right not to have to listen to the refugees who make it across the sea.” ***
While real-life events have temporarily altered these laws, in the novel they are strict procedures, going completely against the moral obligation Richard feels the Germans have. As he muses late in the book, despite the Second World War receding into the mists of history, only when others are shown compassion has Hitler really, truly lost…
Unfortunately, not everyone shares Richard’s opinion, and the smug bourgeoisie have different ideas about what should be done. In a new age of world history, with borders finally set firm, many people fail to see what the refugees are doing here, or why we should help them:
“Warum hat so ein Flüchtling überhaupt einen Laptop, denkt der Anwohner jetzt. Dann ist das bestimmt einer dieser Männer, die im Park um die Ecke mit Drogen handeln, denkt die Anwohnerin.” (p.39)
“What is a refugee even doing with a laptop, thinks the male resident. That must be one of those men who deal drugs in the park around the corner, thinks the female resident.” ***
Nasty, judgemental comments perhaps, but again ones we’re very familiar with from recent events. In the real world, it’s the possession of smartphones that critics have cited as proof of… something or other. In fact, Erpenbeck addresses this rebuke skilfully, showing how phones provide a necessary link to a wider community when postal addresses are transient and useless.
The memory failure on the part of many Germans is rendered more ironic by the fact that the echoes of the past are still all around them. Richard lives in the former east, among shops still painted with their old names and surrounded by ugly utilitarian furniture from the old days. Despite these reminders of the fluidity of history, it seems many prefer to believe in the myth of a new, stable golden age:
“Ist nun der schon so lange andauernde Frieden daran schuld, dass eine neue Generation von Politikern offenbar glaubt, am Ende der geschichte angekommen zu sein, glaubt es sei möglich, all das, was auf Bewegung hinausläuft, mit Gewalt zu unterbinden?” (p.298)
“Is this long period of peace to blame for a new generation of politicians believing that they’ve arrived at the end of history, that it’s possible to put a stop to everything that points to movement by means of violence?” ***
Again, real events have shown this idea of fixed borders and stability to be a myth. However, whether the very German weapon of bureaucracy is as flexible remains to be seen…
Gehen, ging, gegangen is an engaging and thought-provoking book, one which happened to appear at just the right time. It’s already been shortlisted for the Deutscher Buchpreis, the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, and it would be no surprise to see it take out the prize come October. While the focus of this review has been on Richard and ‘our’ response to the situation, rest assured that Erpenbeck, through the professor’s interviews and assistance, spends much more time on the refugees themselves (and the word used throughout the book is Flüchtling, the German word for refugee). Gradually, from indistinct figures, a collection of men with dark faces (and here they are all men), the refugees gradually come into focus, revealing individuals no different from those who scorn them.
And it’s this idea of individuals which the novel eventually focuses on, showing the importance of looking beyond the surface and seeing the people behind the story. In fact, the importance of individuals actually refers just as much to those watching the refugees stream across the borders. Yes, it’s easy to believe that it’s all too hard and that individuals will never be able to do anything to help out. However, Erpenbeck and Richard show that this is far from the truth – even the largest of endeavours has to start somewhere, even if that just means standing outside Munich’s main train station ready to clap and cheer…
A translation into English (hopefully more impressive and less stilted than my efforts) will be coming eventually (I did see 2017 mentioned somewhere), with Susan Bernofsky likely to be on Erpenbeck translation duties once more :)