The vast numbers of refugees arriving in the wealthy countries trouble us all, not only because of their suffering, but also because of the arguments that swirl around us in our own communities. What’s happening to the world we thought was ordered, if so many people are on the move? Are these people really refugees? How many of them can we absorb? Can our communities cope with the influx of different cultures without resentment and violence? Is our own culture at risk? Leave politics and cultural preferences aside, what do we owe other people simply because they’re human beings? And on the level of frank self-interest where most of us operate, how much do I have to let this into my life?
It isn’t easy to deal with a subject like this without preaching or turning it into a polemic, but Jenny Erpenbeck has done it. Her central character, Richard, a retired Professor of Classical Philology, goes on a journey in his own city and his own time that in a few months outdoes the decades he’s spent learning about ancient civilisations (and thinking he understood them). He’s a man who believes in “a sense of order” and in “shared points of reference – standard units of measure” if we’re to understand another human being, but everything about these men is foreign and disconcerting to him. But over and over again they speak to Richard of their parents, their wives and children, and the rituals that held their life together in their own country – and then we see Richard tending his own parent’s grave, in winter covering the grave with winter foliage the way his mother always did, and thinking:
Fir branches the last Sunday before Advent, and lighting a candle on the grave to be extinguished sooner or later by the wind, and then the stillness of winter, a few weeks from now only the green of the box hedge will be left peeking out from beneath the snow – and all of this just as it was almost sixty years ago. Owning a cemetery plot where three generations can rest is, if you like, a sort of luxury, but this thought has only occurred to him in the last few weeks …168-9
The title Go, went, gone, refers not only to the fact that the refugees are trying to learn German, and to the movement from one country to another that erases their identity (I don’t know where my mind is, one says) but also to the way we use language to numb our natural response to people in need. The law has made a shift from physical reality to the realm of language, as Richard says. The judgments being made about these men depend on the bureaucratic language of the law, not on their reasons for flight, and even the most sympathetic lawyers can’t crack the protective bureaucratic surface.
There’s so much more to say about this book. Writers like Jenny Erpenbeck are able to bring alive the process of history as it’s happening and make us care about it. Go, Went, Gone doesn’t have the technical brilliance of The End Of Days, but it’s a beautiful and important book.