Their Lives Go On Until They Don’t: The Trouble with Refugee Novels

January 28, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 8 min read

“Writing poetry after Auschwitz,” the sociologist Theodor Adorno proclaimed in 1951, “is barbaric.” This particular phrase has become so famous because it is both transparently false—ask Levi about that one—and, on a gut level, powerfully true. There is no real connection between aesthetics and reality, and artists are basically foolish if they believe they can alter the course of history. But, if art is in one sense the processing of reality, how can an artist truly hope to process that which, in all its horror and incoherence, resists interpretation?

According to the UNHCR, some 68.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, more than at any time since the end of World War II. Refugees, by definition, are people we become concerned with only when they have been driven from their lives and into our own. As depicted in media, they tend to be denationalized, an essentially undifferentiated mass lacking a past or a future, with only an eternally tragic present. They are defined, wholly, by their displacement. But life is not only catastrophe; it begins before the disruption and, hopefully, continues afterward. Tragedies can define lives when nothing is done to ameliorate them. This, in a sense, is the dilemma that refugees pose for the countries they flee to: Can their new countries do what needs to be done to facilitate a life deserving of a person’s dignity?

Can a novel measure up to the life of even one displaced person? Per W.H. Auden, it seems unlikely. The structure of the novel, which demands drama and plot—action, in other words—is ill-suited to the stuff of life, which is alternately chaotic, incomprehensible, and boring. Even the most straightforward and realistic novel is a combination of the internal and the external, the literal and the metaphorical. And “the trouble,” as Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times in 2016, “is that the migrant is not a metaphor.” A number of prize-winning books, as well as some recent translations, have attempted to make sense of the above dicta, and to find some way to make their mark on this reality. Where they succeed depends as much on which side of the above dichotomy—the life or the disruption—as on how they go about it.


All for Nothing, originally published in 2006 but newly translated this year by New York Review Books, tells the story of the Georgenhof, an old East Prussian estate that lies “in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” Walter Kempowski intends to make the building, with its flooded basement and gardens and “battered metal finial in the shape of a mace,” stand out for the reader as surely as it would for a passerby on the road below. It is January 1945, and the von Globigs—mother Katherina, son Peter, dog Jago, as well as Auntie from Silesia, the tutor Dr. Wagner, and the servants from Poland and Ukraine—play host to a trickling of refugees, a political economist and a violinist and an artist on crutches, a number that swells to a flood by the book’s end. Those from the east tell of the approaching Russians, though the threat seems infinitely distant: “a glow like fire on the horizon, and a rumble that rose and fell in the distance.” Their lives go on until, suddenly, they don’t.

This is a novel with the steady rhythm of breathing. It flickers in and out of the past, to peacetime and the war before that; even the Napoleonic conquest hangs over their heads, in the ruins of the old Georgenhof, torched by the French in crazed retreat. Its characters calibrate and recalibrate themselves by the approach of conflict, fleeing to towns that go on as normally as theirs once had, only to fall into disarray and flee elsewhere again. The refugees, as they see themselves, have not been remade because of the realm of violence they have entered. Looking at a photo, Peter thinks: “A perfectly normal woman and perfectly normal daughter.” They possess no special quality that makes them refugees. Their lives have simply been unmade by what we would now call history.


Richard, too, is interested in the things which make and unmake our world. The narrator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is a recently retired classics professor, wiling away a long draw-down in complacent silence. After he comes across a protest by refugees camping in the center of Berlin, he spends much of the book reading, researching laws, compacts, news articles; he even breaks the cardinal law of the internet and reads the comments. This brings him to an intellectual understanding of the predicament of his refugee neighbors. But, as he increasingly discovers, this is not enough, not close. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche,” goes one of the book’s best lines, “but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”

The majority of Go, Went, Gone is delivered via one-on-one interviews between Richard and the people who, because they have been driven from their home countries or fled poverty and hunger, are known to him as refugees. He asks them all sorts of questions: What country are you from? What people has its home in Niger? What is it like to be a slave? This may sound dry, but it is emphatically not. The stories that emerge are heartbreaking, edifying, and hard to situate. The refugees, whether the Nigerian Rashid, who explains the celebration of Eid, or Karon, who wants to buy a plot of land for his family back in Ghana, are not well-meaning abstractions or straw men. They are people, they have stories, and they tell them. Their uncertain status in no way dictates the content of their lives, in the way that it completely defines them for us. Their statelessness is not an existential threat to our nations, our life ways. It is a transitory condition that cannot hope to encapsulate the full humanity that it disrupts.

Richard, a former citizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, cannot believe in the supposed inviolability of borders and the importance of national identities, because he saw both crumble in his own lifetime; he knows the fragility of European self-confidence. “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, though the view out of the window remained the same.” Erpenbeck guides us through Richard’s internal contradictions—his late wife, a doomed affair and a dully impending future—with the same confidence that the refugees convey their own experiences. Each has lived a life that is, in its own way, a mixture of the emblematic and the extraordinary. “Did it matter,” he wonders, “what something was called?”

Erpenbeck writes about a structure which very much cares what it calls itself. She depicts a purgatorial system that traps the desperate inside of an iron code, where unfathomable punishments are doled out for insignificant transgressions. Refugees, Richard learns, can be refused asylum for not properly registering at their point of entry, for not returning to that point of entry after a mandated period, for taking too many free rides on the bus. “The iron law knows all of this.” Refugees do not have to follow the law: They must surmount it, convincing the residents of their new home that they are not only fleeing violence, or poverty, or hunger, but have done so in total compliance with a law that natives routinely ignore. Riding the bus without a transit pass results in a German getting a fine; for a refugee like Rufu, it can upend their life forever. This is a form of second-class status that applies even to citizens: Think of recent proposals in Denmark, whereby an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, who does not raise their children with properly “Danish” values can lose custody of those children or even go to jail, while a Dane who refuses to celebrate Christmas, or, in the latest legislation, refuses to shake a woman’s hand, remains a Dane. To be stateless, Richard discovers, is to be subject to a law outside the law.


The most acclaimed stateless novel, by far, comes from the British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. 2017’s Exit West, bestselling and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, concerns Saeed and Nadia, who meet “in a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace,” that becomes increasingly less so over the course of the book. Their unnamed middle eastern city becomes occupied by fundamentalists and bombarded by government forces, and eventually they make the decision, as a couple, to mirror the title and flee through a magical door in a disused doctor’s office to Greece, England, and eventually the United States. They join a camp on the beach, occupy a tony house in London, work at a food co-op in California. They drift apart, and their relationship falls to pieces by the end.

Hamid’s writing is feather-light, evoking fables and folk tales in its generality. “The city” remains the city, “the militants” never more than militants. The pair might as well be Hansel and Gretel for all we learn about them. His magical realism allows him to easily bridge the West and the rest, and he inserts brief, speculative vignettes that probe how an easier migration between the two might shape lives on both sides of the doors. These characters, whether a lonely Londoner or elderly Mexican painter, are sharply defined, and one wishes Hamid had written the protagonist-less novel he hints at here. A generation of uprooted people deserves a polyphonic rendering to do justice to the multiplicity of its perspectives, an Invisible Cities for all-but-invisible people.

Hamid wants to write both a planet-scale story and a tenderly felt romance, and the result is a book that feels slightly inhuman. His light touch loses control, spiraling into the unlikely and the fantastic. We get a military build-up outside occupied districts in London, Japanese gangsters chasing Filipinos down alleys, a flood of refugees that quickly remakes the societies into which it exits. Every event is titanic in scale, hysterical in effect. None of it hits, and even the knottiest questions dissipate into air. Even the novel’s most reflective portions, which discourse on the nature of identity, the shades of “nativeness” that accompany any place that has seen its own waves of dis- and replacement, feel essentially speculative. His novel about refugees frequently threatens to become an exercise in novels about the idea of being a refugee. He sometimes forgets, to paraphrase Sehgal, that the refugee is not a vessel, not a construct. They are a person.

Erpenbeck thanks 13 refugees at the end of her book. Kempowski, who was born in East Prussia and fled the end of the war, writes from his life. Both authors traffic in specificity, and their characters and stories could never be swapped out for other, more generic forms. In Go, Went, Gone we hear the many refugees explain themselves, their histories, their wants and desires, understanding that they share what they think Richard, and by extension the reader, will be able to grasp. They play up certain details, hide others, and must find a way to fit all of them into this new and uncertain world. Richard himself receives an incredible amount of attention: The final moment of the book involves a revealed shame from his own past, connected suddenly with the men around him. But he is folded always back into the world of the refugee, each story bolstering every other.

Kempowski’s Gogolian method eases us into many perspectives, giving us glimpses of just about every character’s interior life. We hear from Peter, Auntie, a Baltic Baron and Jewish hideaway; even the horse and the dog get their say. Every moment is weighted equally, even once they have to flee their homes and suffer random and horrific violence. They, like us, cannot see what is coming. They can only hold on to what matters and search out the life they want to live.

What all these characters are searching for, acknowledged or not, is that exact thing we read novels to escape: banality. Again and again, Erpenbeck’s refugees and the residents of the Georgenhof turn from their extreme, extraordinary circumstances to the basics of life, recalling families, jobs, routines upturned in a flash. Katherina, held by the police, wants only to talk about a romantic weekend with the town mayor. Dr. Wagner spends the final afternoon of his life wondering how he had avoided reading a certain philosopher. Rashid, driven by Christian violence from Nigeria, talks about his mother, his sisters, his father’s funeral. They are consumed by cycles of order and disorder, banality and disruption, but they never stop living, never cease in their personhood.

These novels exist at a fundamental distance, that of the foreigner, the survivor. Richard remains as divided from his many counterparts as Kempowski does from his autobiographical protagonist, separated by birth, language, time. Their authors look onto the subjects with a certain cold acuity. And yet both provide fuller and more humane portraits than Exit West, a book that struggles mightily to embody the specific experience of displacement. The trouble is that Hamid is looking in, too, even if his writing rarely acknowledges it. He wants to represent a reality he can see only in its most general forms. The story that emerges is all cursory forms and incidental outlines, prioritizing the easily categorized—drama, tragedy, narrative—over the unspoken and unplaceable. Worst of all, his protagonists are flat, their relationship uninteresting: Because these characters could never carry a book on their own, their lives only become interesting, and therefore valuable, because they have been disrupted, not despite it. Their dignity arises only when they interact with “us” as readers, citizens, hosts. Everything before then might as well be a product of our imaginations.

I don’t want to argue that books need moral content; they don’t. But for a novel that seeks to probe the causes and consequences of our displaced era, this seems wrongheaded. Everyday life is not simply prelude to disaster, banality not a false state waiting for the hammerblow of history; it is the thing itself. Thinking otherwise is a disaster.

is a writer and critic from New York's Hudson Valley. You can find his work in Commonweal, Bandcamp, and Roads & Kingdoms, among other places.

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