Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Jenny Erpenbeck's remarkable new novel questions our understanding of borders and identity, and calls above all for compassion
Any novel attempting to deal with a political issue runs many risks, including the danger of being heavy handed or overly sentimental, or of patronising either readers or the survivors depicted. Go, Went, Gone, the latest book by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, skilfully evades all of these pitfalls to become a powerful, moving, masterful novel.
Go, Went, Gone is told from the perspective of Richard, a retired professor in Berlin who gets to know a group of African refugees and is drawn ever closer into their lives. Set when the tragedies of mass drownings in the Mediterranean were becoming ever more frequent and more publicised, the novel interweaves the stories of each refugee with Richard’s own narrative.
Erpenbeck beautifully evokes the normality of the life each man led before being forced to flee, their jobs as mechanics or metal workers, their wives, parents, children. Meanwhile, she presents with painful clarity the Kafkaesque rules and regulations which determine the refugees’ fates once they have arrived in Europe. Erpenbeck herself worked closely with a number of refugees in Germany while writing the book, and this shines through in both her urgent empathy and her thorough understanding of the bureaucracy set up to 'process' the refugees.
The result is a remarkable novel which questions our understanding of borders and identity and which calls above all for compassion.