A Small Flame in the Dark: On Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Go, Went, Gone’

February 7, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

“People have always moved. The story of humanity is essentially a story of movement.”
Patrick Kingsley, The New Odyssey

Some of the romance of my life in Rome was the view out my apartment’s windows: two medieval churches, cobblestone roads, the Colosseum if I stuck my head out, and Colle Oppio park that rolled off the Esquiline Hill. The park’s current manifestation was envisioned by the Fascists, and it’s easy to find fasces scraped from fountains when you know what to look for. Perhaps starting a week after it opened, the park has suffered the usual Italian neglect. Long grasses scratch at trellises meant for flowers, a bare-bottomed fountain makes a good play-space for children and in August the grass burns to dust. Romans would go there to walk their dogs, tourists to see the ruins of Trajan‘s baths, and migrants to live.

In the park on sunny days, I saw clothes drying on fences and African men playing soccer. Occasionally I saw some men pass through holes in a chain-link fence and disappear behind the tall semi-circular walls of the decaying brick baths. I think they slept above the ruins of Nero‘s Golden Palace, but I don’t know. From all points of the park, from above and below the hill, the group of individuals remained hidden. In a way they were easy not to see, because if I knew more about their privations and struggles in Italy or about their crossings, their stories would haunt me, would spoil some of the insistent beauty of the city.

Early in Jenny Erpenbeck‘s latest novel Go, Went, Gone, Richard, a recently retired classics professor, is struck by his inability to see. It is when he is watching TV that he realizes refugees are staging a hunger strike in the Berlin city square he had passed through earlier that day. On TV he sees they have made a sign which reads, “We become visible,” and learns that they refuse to give their names. He wonders why he hadn’t seen the demonstration and reminds himself “his going hungry would do nothing to help these starving men.” He had his share of adversity growing up after the war in East Berlin.

Out of this incident Richard begins to nurture an interest in the refugees. He doesn’t entertain a do-good morality about his involvement in their lives. It starts off as something to keep him busy in retirement, a way to be less lonely. He’s accustomed to “projects,” research, and he initially treats his curiosity in the refugees as such. This is a man who thinks about his lover and dead wife in the same breath without seeming to feel any guilt. Richard is a wonderful and complex character, at once meticulous in his investigation of the refugees’ lives and stolidly distant from his emotions and people, which gives him room to grow.

He tracks down a group of refugees that he can talk to at an abandoned nursing home where they have been moved by the state. The conversations Richard initiates are grounded in fastidiously designed questions that could fall under the heading Border Crossing, with “border” defined as widely as Erpenbeck defines it, geographical, historical, mythological, between layers, below surfaces, between skin colors. He wants “to investigate how one makes the transition from a full, readily comprehensible existence to the life of a refugee, which is open in all directions—drafty.” As Richard learns the difficult stories of how the refugees got to Europe, so do we. And by the light of these stories, we see the individuals. Rufu and Rashid escaped from Libya over the Mediterranean; Rashid’s boat tipped over; senseless European laws tie Ithemba and Osarobo to Italy because that is where they first landed in Europe and applied for asylum.

coverParallel to the unraveling of the refugees’ stories, Richard learns about Germany’s and Europe’s refugee policies. Through Richard’s thoughts and reactions, Erpenbeck makes caustically apparent that the atrocities the refugees faced getting to Europe are a fraction of their struggles. Patrick Kingsley points out in his book The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis, “In a way the refugee crisis is something of a misnomer. There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves.” Erpenbeck rubs salt in this critique by casting a shadow of Germany’s past over the current crisis:

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.

That line gives me shivers each time.

Another image from Rome: Before I left Italy, my husband was arrested by a municipal vigile urbano for taking photos of a Bangladeshi street seller being arrested near the Colosseum. My husband’s instinct to record the incident pissed the vigile off. The vigile let go of his arrestee and lunged for Simon. A few hours later, in the jail for foreigners, the vigile referred to the refugees who were packed into the cells as animali, animals.

This vigile and those “heavily armed men” are a working arm of what Erpenbeck calls the “iron law:” the Dublin Treaties, the agreements between the refugees and the Berlin Senate, the heavy-duty high wall of bureaucracy. Because even though I’ve never heard anyone but a power-tripping vigile express his perspective so bluntly, the idea that refugees have lives that are somehow less valuable is obvious in the EU’s refugee policies and people’s reactions, which include but are not limited to the laws that make it impossible for refugees to work and the fact that so many in Italy are living in unlivable conditions. Even Richard has to be “reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.”

Perhaps all this makes it seem like the novel is a political treatise, but it is Richard’s subtle transformation and Erpenbeck’s liquid prose style that make this book glow above and beyond the content. Erpenbeck’s mastery of language and image ripples through her pages. The body of a man drowned in the lake behind Richard’s house recurs throughout and expands in meaning each time he enters Richard’s mind. Her prose is so controlled and flowing—and superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky. Her chapters are compact lessons in form and function, some long, most short, all well-contained. I could go on, but you should find out for yourself.

George Orwell in his 1939 essay “Marrakech” writes about the experience of not seeing the native Moroccans in Morocco. He proposes that one way colonialism functions is by making invisible the people who have been colonized. “The people have brown faces—besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names?” Through the essay Orwell catches himself not seeing people: their skulls in the ground, a hungry man as he feeds bread to a gazelle, old women bent below loads of twigs on their backs. The not-seeing becomes seeing.

Seeing alone is not necessarily helping. Three years ago I left Rome to live in New York City where the policies regarding immigration and poverty are no better than Europe’s, even before the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency (although deporting 200,000 people at one fell swoop is particularly low). But all helping begins with seeing; gradually Richard begins to help the refugees; he drives Ithemba to an appointment with his lawyer, he registers a refugee protest in his name, he tries to teach Osarobo music. And at the end of the novel, Richard’s life has widened so profoundly that he now has room to accommodate, physically and emotionally, those he has met who have nowhere else to go. Empathy is a powerful emotion. May it lead the way, a small flame in the dark.

lived for about 10 years in Italy before moving to New York City to go back to school. She just graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and is continuing on for an MFA in fiction. She grew up on a farm in Michigan and now lives in Harlem with her husband and two cats. Find more of her writing at amberpaulen.com.

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