STRANGERS AMONG US
A novelist’s powerful response to the refugee crisis.
BY JAMES WOOD
Earlier this summer, my family spent a week in an Italian village near Menton, just over the border that Italy shares with southern France. Dry hills, the azure Mediterranean, scents of rosemary and lavender, a lemon tree in the garden. Well, lucky us. Daily, we crossed the border into France and back again into Italy. We didn’t have to stop, and the listless border guards barely glanced at our respectable little hired car, with its four white occupants. They were a good deal more interested in the African migrants, who gathered with persistent hopelessness on the Italian side of the border, just a few feet from the guard post. We saw the young men everywhere in that Italian hinterland—usually in groups of two or three, walking along the road, climbing the hills, sitting on a wall. They were tall, dark-skinned, conspicuous because they were wearing too many clothes for the warm Riviera weather. We learned that they had made their way to Italy from various African countries and were now desperate to get into France, either to stay there or to push on farther, to Britain and Germany. “You might see them in the hills,” the genial woman who gave us the key to our house said. “Nothing to be alarmed about. There have been no problems—yet.” Near that house, there was a makeshift sign, in Arabic and English: “Migrants, please do not throw your garbage into the nature. Use the plastic bags you see on the private road.”
I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that, as Edward VIII famously said of mass unemployment in the nineteen-thirties, “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence. We see suffering only intermittently, and our days make safe spaces for these interruptions.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel “Go, Went, Gone” (New Directions, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky) is about “the central moral question of our time,” and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling “moving” stories about people who are very different from us. Erpenbeck writes about Richard, a retired German academic, whose privileged, orderly life is transformed by his growing involvement in the lives of a number of African refugees—utterly powerless, unaccommodated men, who have ended up, via the most arduous routes, in wealthy Germany. The risks inherent in making fiction out of the encounter between privileged Europeans and powerless dark-skinned non-Europeans are immense: earnestness without rigor, the mere confirmation of the right kind of political “concern,” sentimental didacticism. A journey of transformation, in which the white European is spiritually renewed, almost at the expense of his darkly exotic subjects, is familiar enough from German Romanticism; you can imagine a contemporary version, in which the novelist traffics in the most supple kind of self-protective self-criticism. “Go, Went, Gone” is not that kind of book.
Erpenbeck, who was born in East Berlin in 1967, is an original writer. In a novelistic tradition still largely dedicated to the treatment of domestic interiority, she does nothing less than attempt readings of the domestic interiority of history. Her novel “Visitation” (2010) told the history of twentieth-century Germany through the lives of the successive inhabitants of a Brandenburg property, rather in the way that Virginia Woolf refracts the First World War through a history of the Ramsays’ home, in the “Time Passes” section of “To the Lighthouse.” Erpenbeck’s previous book, “The End of Days” (2014), again recounted twentieth-century history, this time through the long life of a woman who could have inhabited most of its tormented decades—from birth in Galicia at the turn of the twentieth century to a period in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties, ending her days as a nonagenarian in a newly unified Berlin. (I say “could,” because Erpenbeck repeatedly kills off and resurrects her heroine, offering each new phase of her life as a historical hypothetical.)
In “Visitation,” the only character who does not leave, because he does not inhabit the house but tends it, is the gardener. As people are displaced, empires demolished, and walls erected, the gardener goes about his task of orderly renewal—the unfinished business of imposing clarity on unkempt space. The gardener sees everything lucidly, often with powerful emotion, but from a slight distance. It is a fair image of how Jenny Erpenbeck works. The reader learns to approach her fiction, especially in its early pages, with the same patience she herself exhibits. Her narratives are rigorous, partial to the present tense, and untempted by the small change of contemporary realism (abundant and superfluous dialogue in quotation marks, sharply individuated characters, tellingly selected detail). Her task is comprehension rather than replication, and she uses a measured, lyrically austere prose, whose even tread barely betrays the considerable passion that drives it onward. (Susan Bernofsky deserves immense credit for bringing this prose to us in English.) Among contemporary Anglophone writers, this classical restraint calls to mind J. M. Coetzee, the V. S. Naipaul of “The Enigma of Arrival,” and Teju Cole’s Naipaul-influenced “Open City.”
That restraint works especially well in “Go, Went, Gone,” where overt passion might so easily become preachment. And it is particularly suited to establishing the sedate rhythms of our protagonist’s daily life, before his transformative encounter. The first pages of Erpenbeck’s novel are full of blind banality. Richard has just retired as a professor of classical philology. He is a widower, living alone in a pleasant Berlin suburb, where the only recent disturbance appears to have been an accident at the nearby lake: in the early summer, a man drowned there, and, months later, the body has not been found. One day in August, Richard happens to walk past a group of protesters in Alexanderplatz: “Their skin is black. They speak English, French, Italian, as well as other languages that no one here understands. What do these men want?” But, lost in his own thoughts, Richard barely notices them; he is thinking about an archeologist friend of his, who has told him that the area is riddled with subterranean tunnels, some dating back to the Middle Ages. At home, his routine closes over him, like the calm waters of the town’s lake. For dinner, he makes himself open-faced sandwiches with cheese and ham, watches TV, reads his favorite passage from the Odyssey. “Later he drives to the garden supply center to have his lawnmower blade sharpened.” He eats the same thing for his weekday breakfast, allowing himself an egg only on Sundays.
There is something evasive about his placidity. What is he concealing, what is he guilty of? Erpenbeck does not say, but it may cross our mind that this is the kind of existence that might serve a war criminal’s quiet rehabilitation. Of course, Richard, who was just a child during the war, is guilty only of the evil of banality, the moral myopia that dims most of our lucky lives in the West. In fact, like many older Germans, Richard was a victim of what his mother used to call “the mayhem of war.” He was an infant when his family fled Silesia for Germany. In the confusion, he was almost separated from his mother, and was handed back to her, through a train window, by a Russian soldier. His father fought in the German Army, in Norway and Russia. And, for most of his life, Richard was not exactly a child of “the West”: he lived in East Berlin. He and his wife were housed on a street that had been turned into a cul-de-sac by the Wall. They were “a mere two hundred yards as the crow flies from West Berlin,” but their lives were materially and politically distant from those of their wealthier neighbors. Even now, in a united Germany, Richard’s academic pension is smaller than that of his retired West German colleagues. He gets lost driving around what used to be West Berlin, because he’s unfamiliar with the geography. The dishwasher still makes him smile: for him it’s a relative novelty, a toy of privilege.
This is the formative milieu of the man who at first ignores, and then does not ignore, the group of African refugees in Alexanderplatz—a fortunate contemporary European who nevertheless has his own history, however far off, of displacement, warfare, borders, and comparative impoverishment. Erpenbeck doesn’t linger on the reasons for Richard’s new attentiveness, but we surmise that they may be partly academic: after a period of indifference, he is suddenly shocked at his own ignorance, ashamed of it. Where are these men from? “Where exactly is Burkina Faso? . . . What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?” He remembers that his mother used to read to him from “Hatschi Bratschi’s Hot-Air Balloon,” a children’s book with an illustration of a “cannibal boy” from . . . somewhere in Africa. Could he really be no better informed as a retired professor than he was as a child? So, in scholarly fashion, he begins “a new project,” and spends the next two weeks reading books and making a list of questions to ask the refugees. Painstakingly, Erpenbeck itemizes these queries, one after another, rubbing our faces in their fathomless ignorance, since, by and large, this is our fathomless ignorance, too:
Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation? How many people are in your family? . . . How did your parents meet? Was there a TV? Where did you sleep? What did you eat? What was your favorite hiding place when you were a child? Did you go to school? . . . Did you learn a trade? Do you have a family of your own? When did you leave the country of your birth? Why? . . . What did you think Europe would be like? What’s different? How do you spend your days? What do you miss most? . . . Can you imagine growing old here? Where do you want to be buried?
Some of the Alexanderplatz refugees are moved to a disused part of a nursing home. Richard goes there to interview them, and finally his project is no longer scholarly. During the next several months, he gets to know the handful of characters whom we, in turn, get to know. He speaks to them in English or Italian. There is a man from Niger whom Richard privately names Apollo, since he looks exactly as Richard thought the god would look. Apollo is a Tuareg (Richard has only the VW Touareg as a coördinate), and never really knew his parents. Perhaps they sold him? He has worked as a “slave” for as long as he can recall. There is Awad, born in Ghana, whose mother died giving birth to him. (Richard nicknames him Tristan.) When Awad was seven, his father, who was working as a driver for an oil company, took him to Libya. Awad later got work as an auto mechanic. But Qaddafi’s regime began to teeter, and during the civil war “no one was on our side,” Awad says. “Even though I grew up in Libya.” Awad was rounded up by soldiers and put on a boat, along with hundreds of others. Where was the boat going? Malta, Italy, Tunisia? No one knew. They were at sea for days; when someone died, the body was thrown overboard. Awad spent three-quarters of a year in a Sicilian camp. Eventually, he flew to Germany, choosing Berlin at random. And there is Rashid, who walks with a limp, and has a scar under his eye. Rashid, who is from Nigeria, was the victim of what appears to have been a Boko Haram attack. He travelled to Italy on a boat carrying eight hundred people. When the Italian coast guard tried to rescue them, the boat capsized; five hundred and fifty drowned.
Erpenbeck’s novel is usefully prosaic, written in a slightly uninviting, almost managerial present tense, which keeps overt emotion at bay. Just as Erpenbeck does not really examine the causes of Richard’s change of heart, so she is wary of bestowing anything like easy “redemption” on her protagonist (and hence on her novel). He remains somewhat distant to us, and somewhat distant to the African refugees he befriends and ultimately aids. So Richard’s “journey” seems functional rather than spiritual. Though he is spurred to action (he ends up making room for twelve refugees to live in his house), it is not clear that he is a better man at the end of the book than at its start. Two elements seem central to his character: his East Germanness, and his curiosity. The former constantly reminds him of his second-class status in a united Germany, and he draws on his sensitivity to this relegation when he begins to interact with the men he befriends. The latter becomes the novel’s own curiosity, which is why “Go, Went, Gone” is as much about the lives of the refugees as it is about Richard’s life. Jenny Erpenbeck thanks thirteen interlocutors, whom one assumes to be African immigrants in Germany, for “many good conversations,” and her novel has about it an air of practical humility, since presumably Richard’s questions were once hers, too. What can we discover about these men? What can those discoveries possibly mean? And how do we live—what should we do—once we have modified, however feebly, our colossal ignorance?
“Thiiiings! Things instead of money!”
Erpenbeck does not force her hand. Though we have learned more about the lives of the African refugees by the novel’s close, we do not gain intimate access to their lives. And while Richard is keen to learn more, he brings his own assumptions and blindness to his project. For Richard is not simply as ignorant as most of us; his is a highly educated ignorance: “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.” Out of this literate, well-stocked abyss, Erpenbeck constructs an encounter not only between people but between cultures. Richard must discover everything about his African interlocutors—family, religion, schooling, customs. And, in turn, he will use his own German and classical culture, sometimes defensively, sometimes productively, to begin a process of comprehension that culture might, in fact, impede. He must receive things he may not understand, and he must give things that may not be wanted. Richard brings to bear what is at hand (his cultural inheritance) on what is in front of him (the men whose lives he no longer ignores). But mutual comprehension is by no means guaranteed, or even apparent. At first, he assigns the Africans his blatantly romantic classical nicknames (Apollo, Tristan, Hermes). Then he sits in on the men’s German lessons, and eventually starts teaching them himself. The novel’s blunt, ghostly title is taken from one of these language lessons, on irregular verbs—gehen, ging, gegangen.
Erpenbeck beautifully orchestrates a counterpoint, a thread that weaves its way between Richard’s established European patrimony and its disruption in the face of the Other. The novel offers a premonition of this disruption in its early pages, deploying a famous example from the classical tradition. Archimedes, drawing geometric circles on the ground, is supposed to have told the Roman soldier who killed him, “Do not disturb my circles.” Richard refers to this, as an illustration of how “you can never count on freedom from mayhem.” He is thinking of the Second World War, and of his own childhood. But this nice reflection occurs before he himself has been tested; before his own circles are disturbed by the “mayhem” of the African refugees he struggles to understand, and whom he later champions. Elsewhere, when one of the men, a Malian named Yussuf, tells him that he has worked as a dishwasher in Italy, Richard is uncomfortably aware that this fact “spells Yussuf’s doom,” that he won’t get asylum in Germany. (European law suggests that, since Yussuf entered the continent in Italy, that is where he should register.) He immediately thinks of a fatal line of Brecht’s: “He who laughs has not yet received the terrible news.”
At the heart of the novel is the friendship—wary, limited—between Richard and Osarobo, a young man from Niger who has spent three years in Europe. Like the others, Osarobo tells Richard that he wants to work. (The refugees are waiting to apply for asylum, and in this state of limbo are permitted only to receive benefits, not to work.) Hearing this, Richard thinks of Prince Tamino, from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”: “In front of every door he tries to open, a voice makes him stop: Go back!” Osarobo surprises Richard by saying that he would like to learn to play the piano, and Richard obliges by offering the use of his own instrument. In a vivid scene, he tries to teach Osarobo how to play a simple five-finger scale, starting with middle C. For smooth playing, Osarobo must make his hand heavy, but he is unable to let it fall in just the right way:
The black man and the white man look at this black arm and this black hand as if at something that is causing problems for both of them. Your hand has weight, Osarobo shakes his head, yes it does, of course it does, just let it fall. Richard holds Osarobo’s elbow from below and sees the scars on this arm that the arm’s owner is trying to control, the hand is prepared to jerk back at any moment, the hand is afraid, the hand is a stranger here and doesn’t know its way around. Let it fall.
Richard shows Osarobo videos of pianists playing Chopin and Schubert, and one of a pianist who goes unnamed but appears to be Glenn Gould.
Yet this kind of exchange cannot be one-way. In another, poignant moment, a musical reference is, as it were, handed back to Richard by one of the Africans—a reference now altered by its political translation. Facing likely deportation from Berlin, the refugees eventually explode with anger. Yussuf becomes violent, punching anyone who tries to speak to him, including Richard. Shouting in French, Italian, and some German, Yussuf says, “Leave us in peace, damn it!” and “I’ve had enough!” Twenty pages later, Richard suddenly recalls the famous Bach cantata “Ich Habe Genug.” But why? “Maybe it was hearing Yussuf, the flipped-out future engineer, shouting Ich habe genug—I’ve had enough!—in front of the Spandau residence.” Erpenbeck proceeds to quote lines from that celestial cantata—devout language that speaks of leave-taking and religious consolation (“Fall in soft and calm repose! / World, I dwell no longer here”), but that Yussuf’s anguish has robbed of such antique sureties.
Once Erpenbeck opens this dialogue between privileged European citizen and powerless African refugee, the asymmetrical structure of the encounter begins to generate its own radical inversions—political and ethical reversals of the kind that Montaigne knowingly uses in his great essay “On Cannibals,” or that Shakespeare employs in “King Lear,” when he has the madly rational king cry out, “Change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?” Each side, for instance, can be as ignorant as the other. Osarobo has never heard of Hitler and knows nothing about a world war. Another man, Rufu, has never heard about a wall dividing East and West Berlin. And, when Richard tells him how the wall worked, he naturally turns the concept upside down: “Ah, capisco, they didn’t want them in the West.” No, Richard says, “they didn’t want to let them leave the East.” In this way, Erpenbeck’s novel is brilliantly alive to its regime of ironic inversion. The refugees are not allowed to work, Richard thinks, but their presence has created “half-time jobs for at least twelve Germans thus far.” Why should we have so much, Richard thinks on another occasion, and they so little? German postwar prosperity is generally attributed to hard work, native ingenuity, and fine organization. East Germans had little to do with this economic miracle, yet they are also the lucky beneficiaries. So, Richard wonders, “who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows?” He further reflects: “But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around.” Richard’s friend Sylvia adds, “I keep imagining that someday it’ll be us having to flee, and no one will help us either.” Change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? The East German perspective constantly lends its own difference.
“Go, Went, Gone” does not simply observe such reversals but enacts them, and in so doing becomes one of those books, like “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” or, indeed, “Open City,” which challenge us not to be mere flaneurs of the text but to change our lives and the lives of those around us. Such works are always on the verge of becoming scripture or parable, because they announce that to read is to comprehend, and to comprehend is to act. Tolstoy declares this loudly and forcefully; Erpenbeck, like Teju Cole, voices it more quietly. Here the implied chain of transformation offers a lesson of its own: just as Jenny Erpenbeck must have been profoundly changed by her encounters with the thirteen African refugees she interviewed in order to write this book, so her fictional protagonist is likewise changed, and so, too, must her readers be changed—we are all part of Richard’s “project.”
Richard is transformed enough to turn his life upside down. In the most conclusive of the novel’s reversals, he takes in the stranger—and the stranger ends up cooking his native food for Richard, in the host’s home. When the refugees seem likely to be forcibly removed from Berlin, Richard and his friends act. He arranges to have his house officially recognized as a shelter for the dozen or so refugees who live there. His friends Detlef and Sylvia put three men in their garden guesthouse. Detlef’s ex-wife says that someone can sleep in her tea shop, in Potsdam. Richard’s archeologist friend, whose place is empty because he is abroad on a visiting professorship, tells him to ask the neighbors for the key. And so on. “In this way, 147 of the 476 men now have a place to sleep.”
So “Go, Went, Gone” would seem to end in pealing hope, with the kind of unlikely closures that nineteenth-century novels and children’s books indulge in. But Erpenbeck’s last-minute rescues are wistful rather than very probable. Besides, they are not nearly enough to mitigate the deeper crisis. There is only so much that a few kind-hearted citizens can do. The novel’s cool tone never wavers, however. “In this way, 147 of the 476 men now have a place to sleep”—does that sentence announce a triumph of sorts, or an abject failure? Erpenbeck remains hard to read. A clue to the novel’s political soul is provided by an immigration lawyer, who tells Richard that, two thousand years ago, “no one was more hospitable than the Teutons.” The lawyer reads aloud from Tacitus’ Germania, his report on the German peoples. “It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door,” Tacitus wrote. “The host welcomes his guest with the best meal that his means allow. . . . No distinction is ever made between acquaintance and stranger as far as the right to hospitality is concerned.” And nowadays? asks Richard. Ah, nowadays, the lawyer says dryly, “we’re left with Section 23, Paragraph 1 of the Residence Act.” There is something almost beautiful, Richard thinks earlier, in Osarobo’s ignorance of Hitler. Perhaps this innocence can erase the awful past and transport us “to the Germany of before, to the land already lost forever by the time he was born. Deutschland is beautiful. How beautiful it would be if it were true.” If Richard here dreams backward, the novel also dreams forward, in a similar gesture of utopian erasure. Make Germany, it seems to say to us, not great again but beautiful again. ♦