Becoming Visible: On Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone

Oranienplatz, Berlin, Germany.

Very little in Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous fiction—allegorical, timeless—prepares a reader for the immediacy and moral heft of Go, Went, Gone. It asks the same question Michael Ignatieff did in his provocative 1984 essay “The Needs of Strangers”: does the welfare state fail to provide for our most basic human need, the need to belong? Three decades later, with refugees flooding Europe, that question can no longer be ignored. Erpenbeck tackles it head on.

Richard, the author’s stand-in, is a newly retired professor emeritus with time on his hands. His greatest concern, as he surveys the boxes of books that have been his life, is that he not lose his marbles. But he is about to meet war victims whose sanity, indeed whose futures, is far more precarious than his. The African refugees that crowd Berlin’s Alexanderplatz refuse to be displaced by a German government that first agrees to meet their needs, then revokes that agreement. Crossing the square, Richard doesn’t notice their rally. When he sees it on the evening news later, he wonders: why were they invisible to him? He eats his dinner and the TV cameras capture Africans fasting to protest their treatment, holding a sign that reads “We Become Visible.” He had walked right past them.

The refugees’ home countries—Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone—are “invisible” to most people as well. Richard prides himself on being well-read but can’t think of a single capital city in any of Africa’s fifty-four countries. He decides to attend an assembly in a former school where about a hundred refugees are bunking, but doesn’t introduce himself to anyone and, after some unexpected violence, he flees. He reasons that he’s neither activist nor social worker: “He isn’t a part of a group, his interest is his own, it belongs only to him…. If he hadn’t been so cool-headed all his professional life, he wouldn’t have understood so much.”

The next day he visits Oranienplatz, “a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps” to house the Africans. Richard sees young white sympathizers who want to change the world and black refugees who want admittance to that world. An odd alliance.

After 2 ½ hours of silent watching, Richard goes home. He approaches his new project—learning about Germany’s unwanted arrivals—the way he had approached his academic pursuits, by reading about refugees and listing the questions he wants to ask them. During this two-weeks of study, the tents and shacks in Oranienplatz are torn down and forty refugees are divided among facilities run by charitable organizations, one of which is an abandoned nursing home in Richard’s neighborhood. That’s where he meets Rashid and Zair, refugees who survived capsizing off the Italian coast: 550 out of 800 people drowned. Abdusalam sings a song from his country at Richard’s request; it’s one of the few things he’s saved.

The exiles share images of home on devices they call “the memory”—mobile phones, which at first Richard thinks are a luxury. But they are lifelines to each other, in case they get separated, and to their past. In this political limbo, they have no future. “I look in front of me and behind me,” says a refugee known only as the thin man with the broom, “and I see nothing.” The thin man and his comrades have time to tell Richard their stories. The Classics professor gives them fanciful names—Apollo, the curly-headed teenager; Hermes of the golden shoes; and the Olympian, hurler of thunderbolts. Awad, known as Tristan, lived comfortably in Tripoli until the war killed his father and forced him to Italy, where he lived on the streets. In Berlin, he joins the tented community of exiles at Oranienplatz. Tents? He has never lived in a tent. He weeps and can’t stop weeping. “I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be,” he says. “What’s the sense of all this?”

Inevitably, Richard questions how the Berlin Senate has chosen to handle these victims of war and, reading the legalese of Dublin II, discovers that the agreement merely regulates who has jurisdiction over them. The answer? Italy, the country where they first set foot on EU soil. And in short order, the refugees are relocated again. With no status, they have no rights; they have no choice. What they want is to work. Rashid, for example is a skilled metal worker, Ali, a nurse—skills Germany needs.

Instead of opportunity, Germany offers regulation, a plethora of bureaucratic forms with odd names. A Certificate of Fiction, for example, has nothing to do with novels. It confirms that a person exists, but doesn’t guarantee any rights. These “endless streams of people who, having survived the passage across a real-life sea, are now drowning in rivers and oceans of paper.”  Law and property being one, Erpenbeck challenges the bourgeois notion that affluence is deserved, rather than the luck of the draw. Richard and his closest friends decide that if property isn’t the result of personal merit, certainly the refugees can’t be blamed for having none:

…the thought of everlasting flux and the ephemeral nature of all human constructs, the sense that all existing order is vulnerable to reversal, has always seemed perfectly natural, maybe because of their postwar childhoods, or else it was witnessing the fragility of the Socialist system under which they’d lived most of their lives and that collapsed within a matter of weeks.

Their sympathy with Germany’s new arrivals is countered by racist calls for deportation, personified by Monika and Jörg, whose Italian vacation is ruined by African women begging by the road. “Wearing boots and these short little jackets. Just standing there in the cold, in the snow — lots of them! There was something creepy about it. Elsewhere, Jörg. a psychiatrist, jokes that the solution to Rufu’s health crisis might be a medicine man.

Slowly, Richard discovers he can make a difference: he hires Apollo to help him garden, offers Osaboro piano lessons, buys a piece of Ghanian property for Karon’s family, finds a dentist for Rufu, and finally in a memorable climax he invites his new black friends and old white friends to celebrate his birthday together. Widowed and childless, Richard knows he receives more than he’s giving to the Africans, happier now in a new residence where they can play soccer with children and cook their own food. And just as they begin to feel “normal,” news comes that twelve of them will be transported to different locations—by police in riot gear.

Richard watches the forced removal. “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….” Cell phone service is blocked so the refugees can’t message each other. “They treat us like criminals. But what did we do?” asks Rashid.

By novel’s end, the Classics scholar is so profoundly changed by his friends’ stories that when he’s asked to compose a lecture on Seneca, he sees in that Roman’s work the weight of the Africans’ suffering, and compares it to the poverty of experience and emotional anemia of his countrymen. “Must living in peace — so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world — inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

Erpenbeck’s choice to tell the refugees’ stories from Richard’s point of view—at least ninety percent of her narrative—denies entry to their inner life and feelings, fiction’s ultimate magic. In that sense, what is invisible at the beginning of the novel never becomes entirely visible. When the narrative takes their perspective, however, the emotional energy changes as the stakes rise. Here is Awad, still fighting the war in his head as he tries to welcome Richard:

Awad opens the door, greets him. How are you, fine, and offers him a cup of tea, the thought of the shattered window he escaped through is lodged in his head, and so is the thought of blood, and the older gentleman sits down and says he has a few more questions, if it’s possible, and the thought of his father is lodged in his head, he can’t manage to extract all these thoughts from his head all on his own, all the shards are lodged in there while he puts the water on to boil, the thinking is lodged in his head like a shattered animal.

Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) are irregular German verbs one of the refugees is learning when Richard meets him, but they also reference the exiles’ transient status and their loss of identity. Richard, who was nearly separated from his mother in their flight from Silesia to Germany during WWII, understands how tenuous is the thread of their existence. “Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead.”

Richard begins his retirement worrying that he’ll “lose his marbles” and discovers how precious sanity is to those driven mad by bureaucracy. The novelist’s ironic view of her country’s history and future befits a former East German separated from the West by a wall, fed on promises of an egalitarian society. Alexanderplatz’ Fountain of Friendship Between Peoples represents that ideal. “But then, defying all expectations, the East German government that had commissioned this fountain suddenly disappeared after a mere forty years of existence along with all its promises for the future…” How to explain to foreigners a history many Germans can’t explain to themselves?

In this novel of displacement, Erpenbeck’s epigraph quotes Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Richard finds out that his reaction to the Africans’ predicament is distinct from the feelings of those he counts as intimates. His experience has changed him. When he weeps because a teenager he trusted may have broken that trust, he realizes, it is the first time he has wept since his wife died. He has the state recognize his house as a shelter for a dozen or so refugees. He finds homes for many more. He has welcomed strangers and found himself among friends.

About Lisa Mullenneaux

Lisa Mullenneaux's poems and essays have appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Stone Canoe, The Fourth River, the Tampa Review, the New England Review, and others. She teaches writing for the University of Maryland UC.