Magazine article World Literature Today

Go, Went, Gone

Magazine article World Literature Today

Go, Went, Gone

Article excerpt

Featured Review Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. Trans. Susan Bernofsky. New York. New Directions. 2017. 320 pages.

In her latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck, 2018 Puterbaugh Fellow, addresses the current refugee crisis that has had far-reaching political ramifications on both sides of the Atlantic. Her protagonist, Richard, a widower and retired classics professor, undertakes a project to interview refugees from Africa who have staged a hunger strike in Berlin to protest their legal limbo. In a work that is at once fiercely urgent and profoundly meditative, Erpenbeck underscores the central truth that the engagement with the Other inevitably entails a reckoning with the self.

Now available in Susan Bernofsky's deft and supple translation, Go, Went, Gone alludes through its title's conjugations to the one activity that the German government sponsors for the refugees: language classes. However, this title also suggests the experiences that several of the refugees relate to Richard: the departure from a homeland racked by war and poverty, the desperate and hazardous journey to Europe, and the eventual disappearance in a bureaucratic process that refuses to allow them to arrive officially in Germany. Further, Go, Went, Gone suggests Richard's situation at the beginning of the novel as he retires from his academic position, vacates his office, and contemplates the ultimate departure of his own mortality.

However, another grammatical concept springs to mind as we consider Erpenbeck's novel: the categories of time, manner, and

place that determine the order of phrases in a German sentence. Throughout the novel, Erpenbeck is preoccupied with questions of history-whether personal, national, or global-with issues of culture and custom, as Richard and the refugee interlocutors negotiate their relationships with one another, and finally with the inevitable and indelible influence of location on the individual subject. In this way Erpenbeck re-engages with one of the themes of her 2012 best-seller The End of Days; that is, the suprapersonal and contingent forces, such as history, geography, and culture, which ineluctably impinge on the individual's destiny.

The novel charts Richard's progression from a disengaged and oblivious academic to a committed activist. Indeed, in the opening pages Richard walks right past the refugees on hunger strike and fails to notice their public protest, despite their sign proclaiming, "We Become Visible." Erpenbeck points to Richard's and refugees' shared experience of time that piques the protagonist's interest: as a recent retiree, he, like the refugees, barred from working in Germany while they await rulings on their cases, must confront a life of enforced inactivity. She writes: "Time does something to a person because a human being isn't a machine that can be switched on and off. The time during which a person doesn't know how his life can become a life fills a person, condemned to idleness, from his head to his toes" Yet while Richard can find a new purpose in life by becoming increasingly involved in the refugees' cause, his interviewees remain excluded from the realm of work and thus from German society.

The question of negotiating foreign cultures is not only a pressing concern for the protagonist and the refugees but also for the author herself, who must distill the numbing enormity of the European refugee crisis into comprehensible and relatable narratives. …

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