A white, male, comfortably-off, widowed professor at a Berlin university has just retired. He meets Black African men seeking asylum in Europe. He tries to find out about them, and to help them.
Not new, perhaps. Isn’t the whole perspective wrong?
But it’s by Jenny Erpenbeck, so Go, Went, Gone should be very good.
And two of my book clubs want to read it (one in English translation by Susan Bernofsky, one in the German original) So if it is not very good, I’ll have plenty of fiercely intelligent and wickedly humorous translator colleagues to help me articulate why not.
And it’s set in beautiful, brittle Berlin. The professor lived on the other side of the wall from where I did. I didn’t live there until a good decade after the wall came down, but the bus routes still ended in my bit of Kreuzberg, then. To get across to see my best friend in Friedrichshain, it was still easiest to walk. This kind of memory of the shifting layers of the city is central to the professsor’s experience in the book. Overnight, his state ceased to exist and he changed countries without moving anywhere. The “Federal” Republic was strange; he grew up in the “Democratic” one. Any city dweller will recognize his annoyance when people try to block his path on his commute to work. On the day the wall fell, he could have finally got to the Humboldt University in 20 minutes by U-Bahn. If a streetful of Wessies hadn’t wanted to embrace their long-lost brother from the East.
Erpenbeck’s choice makes sense. For white readers in Europe, a protagonist more “like us” is a way in, to understanding what things are like for “them.” The professor has to confront how little he knows about the dozens of countries in Africa. And how little the men he meets know of Germany, ”the land of poets and murderers.” They don’t know who Hitler is – the wars they are contending with are more recent. His few books on Africa are hopelessly out of date, he has to look up the names of capital cities and languages. He seeks to converse. He comes with a battery of questions, and because he’s a professor, he gets let in to ask them.
The men he meets are stuck in beginner language classes. They relearn the same irregular verb as they are rehoused, re-expelled, and re-enter Germany from Italy, whence they came. And from Libya before that. And from all across the African continent before that. Erpenbeck exposes the absurdity, injustice and violence of the systems that made them go want want them gone. None of this is news, really. But she gives faces and stories to individuals who have made that journey across the Mediterranean. For the professor, these individuals become friends, who spend Christmas with him, celebrate his birthday, and even move in.
I would have wished to hear more from their perspective, but other books can do that. The professor and his German friends come up against their own limits on getting involved with the men from Niger, Burkina Faso, or Ghana. Reading about them, I could see the limits on how I engage with refugees where I live. This is Erpenbeck’s wake-up call – will you stand by and let this happen to all these people? How can you? What would happen if, instead, you stood up for them, or – even bettter – stood together?