‘The Lives of Others: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go Went Gone”’, by Ruth McHugh-Dillon

Allen and Unwin

Does it matter where you read a book? I was reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone in a court waiting room, where my friend’s asylum case had been adjourned (again) until the interpreter showed up. The interpreter’s arrival didn’t bring clarity. Instead, I felt a tightening of the chest; bitterness: she was doing a great job translating words, but it felt like no one was telling the story that mattered. Or maybe no one had a language that allowed them to hear it.

I left court that day with a clear thought: the law is its own language. And a question: who is it for?

Go Went Gone is hypersensitive to language as the material of its own construction, and it uses this self-awareness to explore the refugee crisis in Europe. Privilege is both its theme and narrative strategy, exposing how rarely written laws are “anchored in the emotional lives of the people”. Instead, the law creates borders — it is a border — less interested in whether refugees’ stories are true than whether European countries are “legally obligated to listen” to them.

Borders, gates, and bridges spring up everywhere in the novel. Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky and set in Berlin, it is haunted as much by the ghosts of that city’s divided, war-torn/wall-torn past as by the crowds of refugees camped in its freezing present, in Oranienplatz.

In this crisis — where at least in principle, asylum cases pivot on the ability to tell a compelling story — the novel asks urgent questions. What are the ethics of telling others’ stories? What are the ethics of not telling these stories, when language itself is the obstacle? Language, the novel argues in its story and its structure, is also the bridge.

Who better to drive the narrative, then, but Richard: a retired, white, German, Professor Emeritus of Classical Languages. As the embodiment of economic, racial, and linguistic privilege, he operates as the novel’s gateway. Not its final destination, but its most honest portal for a white German author like Erpenbeck imagining the violence of exclusion suffered by the men from Oranienplatz: exclusion from working, shelter, papers; from language itself. From this position of embodied privilege, Erpenbeck explores the possibility of an ethical and empathetic encounter with the “emotional lives” of others, those the law fails to see or hear.

That possibility is key. Go Went Gone is a quietly compelling, quietly devastating story that speaks to our moment, globally and locally; its characters are complex; its rhythm is thoughtful. But it is its inquiry into ethical, empathetic engagement through the language of literature that feels most striking and urgent.

Getting to know the men from Oranienplatz — Rashid, Awad, Osarobo, Rufu, Karon, Ithemba, Yaya, Ali, Mohamed — Richard learns and changes.

At the novel’s beginning, Richard is freshly retired and, since his wife died several years earlier and his lover left, leads a quiet, solitary life. After the “share of success” he has enjoyed as an academic, he wonders how he will occupy himself now, with the “many thoughts still thinking away inside his head”. The intimate absence of women in his life is marked, as is the cure he has always used for love or its absence — work. He feels tormented by time itself.

Meanwhile, in front of Berlin’s Town Hall a small group of Black men are staging a protest. They demand the right to remain in Germany and to work, and they refuse to disclose their names. This refusal produces “a great silence in the middle” of Berlin. When you are locked out by language and law, silence proves paradoxically potent. Their placard reads in English: “We become visible.”

Yet Richard walks right past them. He only finds out about the protest later on the news — and that Oranienplatz has been occupied for over a year by refugees from Africa and their supporters. The narrative nudges: why didn’t Richard see these men?

His ignorance bothers him, and like a good researcher he decides to find out more. By now the men have signed an agreement with municipal authorities and been moved to temporary accommodation in an old nursing home, a location charged with symbolism. All day the young men lie on beds in a torpor, unable to work, nothing to do, tormented by time. It is the older man who comes and goes freely at the nursing home – the staff grant Richard full access to do his “research” with very few questions asked. Where Richard steps, borders melt.

But the narrative also melts the stability of his position, gently tracing the academic’s shift. He begins with research-driven inquiry (“reading several books” on refugees and “drawing up a catalog of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them”) and by the novel’s close ends up in a place of friendship: listening, sharing silence, music, food, taking part in their German lessons, taking practical and political action.

Richard’s first steps into this space of listening are clumsy. Most of the men, from various African countries, were violently expelled from the refuge they had sought in Libya, when conflict began there too. They made dangerous journeys to Italy by boat, were traumatised, lost children. Richard realises how little he knows about the places they have fled. But it is not always as simple as asking: glimpses from the men’s perspective point to the great depth of experience that remains inexpressible — and private.

In the face of Richard’s questions about family, Apollo “is silent. Why should he tell a stranger that he doesn’t know why he never had any parents?” When Richard compliments him on his German writing, the boy wonders: “Should he tell the stranger that the children of the herders would sit beside their mothers in front of the tent, learning to write Tifinagh — the Tuareg script — in the sand while he had to go milk the camels one last time before nightfall?” In this new country Apollo is trying to learn German, but his exclusion from language began back home, as a child with no parents. Richard also finds that “perfectly normal sentences come out sounding completely different” with the men at the nursing home. While the men learn German, he also has to learn a new language to relate, that actually acknowledges and engages with the people before him; a new language to listen in.

So much cannot be communicated, and language is only one obstacle. Faced with the men’s hope of a better life in Germany, and ignorance of its history, Richard also feels the burden of representation. Osarabo has never heard of the world wars, does not recognise the name Hitler. It makes Richard feel “deeply ashamed, as if this thing that everyone here in Europe knows is his own personal secret that would be unreasonable to burden someone else with.”

In fact, Germany itself is a word and concept Richard is not entirely comfortable with; he came of age in East Germany and lives in that same geographical place, only it is called something else now. For a novel driven by borders, movement, and war, this setting is crucial in how it questions the concept of nation-states as watertight and stable. The innocent Germany of ‘before’ — the one the men hope for — Richard knows, was “already lost forever by the time he was born”.

Rather than dramatic climaxes, the plot is pocked with these gentle revelations. They expose Richard’s prejudices and stereotypes, even as he changes. At the supermarket Richard runs into a solitary figure from the German class called Rufu. When Richard can’t find his wallet at the register, a thought surfaces: “no, he doesn’t want to think that…although he’s standing right here behind him and could easily have slipped his hand into his pocket.” Right then, to Richard’s multi-layered mortification, Rufu pays for Richard’s groceries. Rufu won’t accept repayment; Richard insists the shy man comes home for lunch. There in the hallway: Richard’s wallet, dropped on the floor.

Hospitality, the typical narrative might suggest, is the key to the refugee crisis — providing welcome to refugees on a national scale, just as Richard invites Rufu into his home. This is certainly fundamental. But what Go Went Gone prompts is even more subtle and complex. Rufu’s purchase challenges Richard and any reader like him: that accepting hospitality, taking from someone who has nothing, may be a truer measure of exchange and equality that moves beyond pity and paternalism, beyond ‘refugee’ and ‘resident’.

In these quiet ways Erpenbeck avoids commenting directly on the refugee men’s most intimate fears and desires. Instead, the text gently and indirectly makes suggestions through what it lies side-by-side. As the novel builds, it continually juxtaposes the lives of Richard and his old German friends with those of new friends like Rashid, Awad, Osarobo, and Karon.

For example, Richard develops a crush on the young Ethiopian woman who teaches German at the nursing home (she is African, too, but language anchors her in place). He finds himself wondering if he should have put on his good blue linen shirt. And: “How long has it been since he was last with a woman?” This question — the feminine absence — echoes loudly around Richard’s single life and his big, empty house. In the nursing home, this absence multiplies and is amplified, packed in with so many solitary (though not necessarily single) men. The beautiful young teacher stands before them in class, too. How long has it been since they were last with a woman? Where are the women that they love, and that love them?

The novel mostly provokes these questions indirectly, through association. The linking thoughts are simple. Nearing the end of his most privileged life, Richard experiences loss and rootlessness as he finds himself, for the first time, without work or a woman. What about his friends, who are waiting for their lives to begin?

These strategies — foregrounding other aspects of the men’s lives, and reading intimacy and loss through the apparently less vulnerable character, Richard — avoid the leap to racist fears that immediately pin lone, Black men as sexual and suspicious: predators, job-stealers, layabouts. This means that when issues of love and sex finally surface at the novel’s end, it offers a sensitive emotional climax that again links their lives with Richard’s.

The scene is a big feast at Richard’s to celebrate the beginning of summer — the sort of gathering he hasn’t hosted since his wife died. The men are happily busy and working: raking and mowing the garden, cooking, moving furniture. Richard’s group of old German friends, who have also been hosting many of the men since their benefits were cut off, join them. By this time lines have blurred and a community formed.

The wife of Richard’s friend Detlef is absent. News that she is rapidly deteriorating from cancer prompts expressions of empathy and sadness: “I’m very sorry for you, Rashid says to Detlef.” But it also prompts each man to think about “women they have loved, who once loved them” — the way one man’s wife kissed his eyes, the way another looked when she was asleep, how one woman’s body gleamed in bed.

These intimate memories of the past open up intimate struggles in the present. “Nobody,” Ithemba says, “loves a refugee.” Apollo worries that women will think he only wants a relationship to get papers. Awad dated a German girl that dumped him when he didn’t want sex straight away. Rashid, whose wife and girls perished in the conflict and the journey from Libya, admits he doesn’t “even know how to start talking to a woman” in Germany. In Nigeria where he is from, a “mother knows how to recognize a good wife”.

This intimate sharing between new friends opens up a new kind of language between old friends, Detlef and Richard, about Richard’s wife, Christel: “They’ve never spoken about anything like this before.” He misses her, yes, but they fought a lot; she was a drinker. Ithemba’s gentle inquiry — now it is Richard’s turn to face questions, reveal his intimate traumas — prompts him to explain why she drank.

What unfurls is quietly devastating, not only for Richard’s own life, but once again its implications alongside his new friends’ struggles. Richard is a man who has been able to make mistakes and thrive. His African friends seeking asylum in Germany, meanwhile, must constantly counter the worst stereotypes and argue, in a language that they barely speak, that they are worthy of safety and all the mundane joys that translates into: family, sex, intimacy, love, work, meaning. They are expected to be angels.

Towards its end, Go Went Gone once again challenges this standard narrative about refugees by subverting its own trajectory. When Rufu earlier on pays for the groceries, the neat lesson is that Richard realises and reassesses his own, racially-charged mistrust. Yet, later, when his trust is broken by Osarabo — a boy he welcomes into his home to teach piano — the novel once again pushes Richard and the reader to observe the boundaries of genuine emotional engagement, the willingness to recognise someone as a human rather than a type, even if that type is a ‘good’ or ‘deserving’ refugee.

And more, still — would Richard himself (unfaithful, driven, distant, rational, controlling) make it into such a category?

In that courtroom I was pushed to thinking about how language is used to keep people out, carve up categories of deserving and undeserving, make it impossible to tell the story that matters. As someone who is not excluded from language — comfortable in educated registers, articulate, a native-born English speaker — and someone who studies books and words, I want to think about how the language of literature can be used to connect with emotional lives. To include people in language where legal imagination can’t or won’t.

In Go Went Gone, to put it simply, Richard becomes a more compassionate person. But his transformation never comes at the expense of his friends’ humanity. In fact, it is because Erpenbeck dares to tell fragments of stories from other places — the blue robes Rashid wore for Eid Mubarak on the last night he saw his mother; the German girlfriend who only wants Awad for sex; the boat trip that tossed them into chaos and loss — that her work avoids the solipsism and narcissism of being trapped inside its own privilege.

The novel reveals the shallowness of arguments that perpetuate the logic, on both sides of the debate about cultural appropriation in art, that aesthetics and social responsibility are separate issues and should therefore be dealt with independently. Go Went Gone shows that good writing is difficult and rare precisely because it founded in thoughtful, self-critical, and compassionate engagement with the lives of others.

Ruth McHugh-Dillon writes, reads, researches, and teaches in Melbourne. Her words can be found in Kill Your Darlings, Right Now, and Overland, and @ruthmahalia about once a year when she remembers she has twitter.