Many believe Germany has provided one of the most compassionate European responses to refugees in recent years: Opening its borders, providing language lessons and helping them to settle. However, in her latest novel Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck digs deep and uncovers a fragile tolerance, as well as a harmful level of bureaucracy that is particularly damaging for certain refugees, namely black African men.
Richard is a retired professor of classical philology and a widower. He is lonely and set in his ways. When he befriends a group of African refugees, housed in the disused wing of a nursing home, he finds his life and many of his values turned upside down. He realises his own alarming lack of knowledge about the African continent and teaches himself where each border lies and the names of the capital cities. So he can better remember the men he meets he gives them the names of characters from classical mythology.
Rashid, the large Nigerian and de facto leader of the group becomes ‘the Olympian – the thunderbolt hurler’. A young man with unruly curls who worked as a slave in Niger reminds Richard of Apollo. He renames Awad, the Ghanian whose mother died giving birth to him, after the medieval legend of Tristan. Employing his academic mind, Richard asks the men numerous questions and learns of their traumatic pasts. Each has a horror story to tell. Many ended up in Libya and when war erupted were forced onto boats, where they risked being shot by the Libyan army or bombed by the Europeans. Richard invites one man, Osarabo, to come and play his piano; another, Rufu, comes to his house to read Dante because his Italian is better than his German.
Erpenbeck has written a profound mediation on the many ways Europe is failing the dispossessed. Regulations, like Dublin II, ‘allow all the European countries without a Mediterranean coastline to purchase the right not to have to listen to the stories of arriving refugees’. Throughout the novel, she demonstrates western hypocrisy and how the developed world is responsible for many of Africa’s problems – whether it is the French company Areva mining uranium in Niger or the US selling arms to Chad. She underlines the shared humanity of the refugees with their German hosts at the same time as questioning the arbitrary borders and divisions they thoughtlessly create:
[I]s it a rift between Black and White? Or Poor and Rich? Stranger and Friend? Or between those whose fathers have died and those whose fathers are still alive? Or those with curly hair and those with straight Those who call their dinner fufu and those who call it stew? Or those who like to wear yellow, red and green t-shirts and those who prefer neckties? Or those who like to drink water and those who prefer beer? Or between speakers of one language and another? How many borders exist within a single universe?
She is not afraid to interrogate Germany’s Nazi past, the failure of the GDR (where she was born), and how racist assumptions continue to influence state decisions. The refugees in Go Went Gone face Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy. Often actions are masked as helping the refugees when they are effectively protecting German interests. Erpenbeck also finds a resonance in the harsh treatment of the refugees and the treatment of the Jews in the Holocaust:
Richard asks himself whether forty heavily armed men are really necessary to remove twelve African refugees from a residential facility, not to mention the other 150 or so police officers waiting in the squad cars for their signal. Tomorrow – this is already clear to him – the newspaper will report on the high cost of this deployment, and this country of bookkeepers will be aghast and blame the objects of the transport for the expense, as used to happen in other periods of German history, with regard to other transports.
Richard listens patiently to the refugee’s heart-breaking stories, recognising them as the ‘gift’ they are. Richard is profoundly changed, his life unexpectedly enriched by his various friendships with the refugees. He also realises the prejudices of some of his German friends: Jorg, the psychiatrist he used to holiday with, belittles the fragile state of a refugee’s mental health claiming: ‘These guys still believe in the medicine man. You dance around him in a circle a few times, and he’ll be as good as new’. Neither are the Africans presented as saints. Richard weeps bitterly when he realises one of the refugees he has befriended may have burgled his home.
There are many layers to unpack in Erpenbeck’s extraordinary novel, superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky. Her disquiet, which evidently inspired this fiction, is borne out with the recent election results in German – members of the nationalist, rightwing AfD have entered parliament and it is currently the third largest party. Richard is a hugely credible and memorable creation, struggling to lay to rest his own demons. But it is the Africans’ stories that haunt Go Went Gone. Erpenbeck met and interviewed many refugees before writing the novel and there is little doubt on whose side she stands. What remains with you is her unflinchingly humanitarian gaze.