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Lives other than his own

A retired classics professor in Berlin gets to know a group of African refugees

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Go, Went, Gone

By Jenny Erpenbeck, Translated by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 286 pages, $17

Identity is one of the central questions of our age, addressed individually, culturally and, perhaps most dramatically, nationally — or more accurately, internationally. As the British historian Frances Stonor Saunders writes in her essay on the subject, Where on Earth Are You?, delivered as a London Review of Books lecture last year and published in that journal: “All borders — the lines and symbols on a map, the fretwork of walls and fences on the ground, and the often complex enmeshments by which we organise our lives — are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are.”

The topic of Stonor Saunders’s essay is the ways in which our Western identities are constructed — by identification, data and recognition; by passports of various kinds and what they signify — juxtaposed against the lack of recognisable identity for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made their way to Europe, so many of whom have died at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean (more than 5,000 in 2016 alone). This is also, from a different angle, the topic of Jenny Erpenbeck’s powerful new novel, Go, Went, Gone.

Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s finest contemporary writers, has been acclaimed for her vision and imaginative daring. Visitation (2010) tells, with impeccable delicacy and calm, the story of a lake house outside Berlin and its changing inhabitants over decades. The End of Days (2014) imagines five different versions of the life of its nameless female protagonist, ultimately encompassing much of the 20th century’s dark history. Her new book, elegantly translated by Susan Bernofsky and set in contemporary Berlin, tells the story of a recently retired classics professor named Richard who, widowed and childless, seeks focus and meaning in his life: “As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone. And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.” At first, we encounter Richard as a man of considerable intelligence and erudition, but also as someone mired in his careful routines, in his mastery of banal quotidian detail: “The next day he mows the lawn, then opens a can of pea soup for lunch, then he rinses out the can and makes coffee. His head hurts, so he takes an aspirin.”

But fate brings him to a group of African refugees who have been camping in Oranienplatz. He makes his way to a meeting about their plight at a former school in Kreuzberg, and finds himself first frightened, and then compelled: “Often when he was starting a new project, he didn’t know what was driving him, as if his thoughts had developed an independent life and a will of their own, as if they were merely waiting for him to finally think them. “Speaking about the actual nature of time is something he can probably do best in conversation with those who have fallen out of it. Or been locked up in it, if you prefer.”

What ensues is Richard’s intellectual, social and spiritual blossoming. Someone who has known his friends for most of his life, he befriends men from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger and Ghana, and learns the extraordinary, brutal and fragmented narratives of their young lives. He rereads his beloved classics and “experiences a shifting in his conception of the Greek pantheon”: “Much of what Richard reads, several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional knowledge he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways.”

In his mind, he gives his African friends names like Apollo, Tristan, and the Olympian or the Thunderbolt-hurler. He listens to their stories, and feels obligated to try to help them. His understanding of their situation isn’t confined to the material — to teaching them German, or giving them money for a transit pass — although this is part of it. He must unlearn, too, his own preconceptions, his own sense of space, time and his habit of expectation. At one point he recalls that “when he and his lover had their penultimate arguments before she left him, she’d said several times that it wasn’t so much the disappointment of his expectations that was the problem, but the expectations themselves. “At first his lover had jokingly referred to all these things he looked forward to as his vanishing points, an expression she later replaced with a different one: happy-ending terrorism.”

But for Osarobo, who has travelled from Niger via Libya and wants to learn piano but has never before touched the instrument; or for Karon, who has lived a life of itinerant poverty in Ghana, and has made his way to Niger, then Tripoli, then Italy, then Finland, then Italy again before arriving finally in Berlin; or for Rashid, who tells an agonising account of losing his children in a shipwreck when fleeing war-torn Libya, and of his wife’s subsequent rejection of him — for these men and others, Richard learns that expectation, even the merest shred of hope, has, along with everything else, been wrested from them. They have, it would seem, only their mobile phones: “The men feel more at home in these wireless networks than in any of the countries in which they await their future. This system of numbers and passwords extending clear across continents is all the compensation they have for everything they’ve lost forever. What belongs to them is invisible and made of air.”

Having grown up and lived in East Germany before reunification, Richard and his friends are closer, perhaps, than many Europeans to understanding the uneasiness of the refugees’ lives. As his friend Sylvia observes, “I keep imagining that someday it’ll be us having to flee, and no one will help us either.” The ghosts that swirl around the Africans in their temporary home are theirs, of course, but also the “marauding troops” and “booted feet” of the Second World War. “Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin,” Richard reflects.

And yet Richard’s lucid awareness — of literary and historical resonance, of his own nature and temperament, of contemporary legal and cultural attitudes — cannot of itself alter reality. His practical attempts to improve his new friends’ lives meet, inevitably, with mixed success. Nevertheless, Erpenbeck’s novel makes a powerful case for Richard’s evolution, and by the book’s close we understand that his own life — so long controlled and closed down — has been emotionally opened and revitalised by his new path. In retirement, he faces not isolation and diminution, but companionship, purpose and a greater capacity to confront his own personal losses and grief.

Erpenbeck’s is a very significant talent. The novel’s timely political subject, distressing and confounding, could easily have worked against its success: The risk of didacticism is high. Ultimately the novel can’t entirely escape this element; but Erpenbeck’s rigour, her crystalline human insight, her exhilaratingly synthetic imagination — uniting Grimm’s fairy tales, the medieval catacombs of Rzeszow, Poland, a great line from Brecht (“He who laughs has not yet received the terrible news”), and the implications of Niger’s significant uranium deposits — combine to make Go, Went, Gone an important novel, both aesthetically and morally. Richard, while by no means perfect, is a far less troubling protagonist than David Lurie in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and the ending of Erpenbeck’s novel is notably more optimistic. But her novel, like his, dares to ask what becomes of identity and morality in the face of our globe’s radical changes.

–New York Times News Service

Claire Messud’s most recent novel is The Burning Girl.

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