In 2015, in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that her country would allow asylum to anyone seeking refuge. This “open-door” policy rebuked a longstanding EU protocol of mandating that a refugee could only seek asylum within the first member country in which they set foot. Merkel’s policy met with fierce opposition from many moderate and right-wing groups and put Germany at center of a massive immigration debate in the West.
It is this issue, and the uncertain future of those it affects, that the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck brings to the fore in her newest translated novel Go, West, Gone, a haunting portrayal of the experiences of impoverished African refugees in Germany, the bureaucracy that impedes their slightest advancement, and the challenges for ordinary Germans to empathize with their plight. Brilliantly wrought into English by her longtime translator, the acclaimed Susan Bernofsky (Robert Walser, Yoko Tawada), Go, Went, Gone is set in Berlin and follows Richard, a retired classics professor and widower who now passes his days in solitude occupying himself with mundane tasks. This sense of loneliness is compounded by Richard’s restless mind in need of a more fulfilling project.
It unexpectedly comes to him, while eating dinner one evening, as he watches a report on the evening news of a hunger strike taking place outside the town hall in Alexanderplatz. The protesters are refugees who have been denied work permits, “men with dark skin” who “don’t say who they are. They simply are.” Though Richard notices them now, including one on a hunger strike, he had failed to acknowledge them when he passed by the strike earlier on foot. The latent manifestation of these men from nameless bodies advocating an obscure cause, or even Richard’s initial inability to register them, is an early indication of the type of social disregard that Erpenbeck interrogates throughout the novel.
By placing the images on a screen right before him, however, Erpenbeck forces Richard to confront his own privilege, poking at his discomfort while doing so. Still, he doesn’t put down his fork in solidarity: “He doesn’t have to starve himself just because a desperate man has begun a hunger strike,” he thinks. Richard is “ashamed, but goes on eating as usual.” But the images haunt him enough that he soon decides to visit a refugee and pro-immigration encampment set up in Oranienplatz, a public square in Kreuzberg, where he encounters many black and brown bodies in an area usually populated by white Berliners. It at first unsettles him, noting how all “ordinary activity” has lost its “ordinariness,” but Richard’s initial wariness shifts to intrigue. In his departure, he muses over what causes the “transition from a full, readily comprehensible existence to the life of a refugee.”
His newfound curiosity as to what turns “a person” into “a refugee” prompts Richard to return to the encampment, which he now finds in disarray. The refugees have been displaced again, this time to temporary facilities, including a former nursing home close to his suburban house. Richard sees this as a sign: “The birth of questions is something that always delights him. The appearance of these refugees in this suburb is just such a moment.” Richard’s instinct is to help, but in doing so he falls into a time-old stereotype: the white savior. And while his intentions are good, there’s something unnerving about his ensuing obsession with these displaced people.
The red flags began as soon as Richard goes to meet some of the refugees at the nursing home. Because he has difficulty pronouncing their names, Richard gives them Western epithets: a man who speaks Italian becomes “Dante;” another who wears gold sneakers becomes “Hermes;” and another, the easily pronounceable “Awad,” becomes “Tristan.” In the act of replacing their names he negates their identities, essentially colonizing them. Perhaps to nullify this notion, he brings them generous gifts, even showering them with thousands of euros. This grand gesture may demonstrate his need to do something, anything, to allow him feel better about their situation, but regardless of his intentions, Richard never seems to escape the confines of the same oppressive structure that he believes he is dismantling. As Richard himself comments, “What actual action lay behind (the) action you could see? Who was putting on a show for whom?”
Through lengthy conversations in multiple languages, Richard eventually commits to the real names of the refugees (Zair, Rashid, Abdusalam), and learns where they are from (Nigeria, Ghana, Niger), and which languages they speak (Hausa, Yoruba, Tamasheq). His questions are endless:“What vegetation is there in your country? … Do people have house pets? … Did you learn a trade?” and from their answers, he is able to piece together sketches of their lives. But still this does not help Richard comprehend these men’s experiences, nor their sense of intense alienation brought on by displacement. As one refugee notes:
“War destroys everything, your family, your friends, the place where you lived, your work, your life. When you become foreign, you don’t have a choice. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know anything. I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be.”
Richard does not alleviate this alienation; his gestures are well meaning but empty, and he turns from “a man filled with great hopes for mankind” into “an almsgiver”— giving rather than sharing.
Perhaps this is Erpenbeck’s warning; in the act of salvation, it is easy to misrepresent disadvantages as signs of victimhood, and by upholding the notion that refugees are dependent on charity, this leads to an maintenance of superiority of one group of people over another rather than establishing equality between the two of them. As Erpenbeck writes: “Must living in peace…inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, and defending instead it so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”
GO, WENT, GONE
tr. Susan Bernofsky
New Directions | Sept 2017 | 320pp
Rosie Clarke is a New York-based writer and events producer. More of her work can be found on her site Heard in the Dark.