Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Leave it to Jenny Erpenbeck to write the most compassionate novel about refugees I have ever read. In my mind, even Exit West by Mohsin Hamid cannot compare.

Perhaps it is not only because of her beautiful writing that she is able to do this; perhaps because she is German she has an idea of what being a refugee must be like.

When I taught in Germany during the 1980’s the Wall was still up. My husband and I rented an apartment from a man whose father had come to visit friends and was never allowed back to his home in the East. We saw films of people trying to escape into the West, and it was horrible.

Our narrator, Richard, lives in Berlin after the Wall has been taken down. I found him to be alienated from his country in ways that faintly resembled how the Africans were alienated from theirs.

In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.

If being a refugee is like being a stranger in a land, than Richard himself qualifies as one in telling this story of his past and Germany’s present.

His terrain has changed not only with the fall of the Wall, but with the death of his wife, the absence of his lover and now the end of his career. As he tells us of his youth, in the East side of Berlin, we hear of pain and suffering which resonates with that of the refugees whom he is so curious about.

His curiosity expands into “interviewing” the African refugees when he visits them in the nursing home where they have been temporarily moved, then helping them, and finally befriending them.

Some of my fellow bloggers have suggested that this novel is more about the theme than the writing, and indeed, the theme of the refugee’s plight is relentless. But, the novel is compassionate, and thought-provoking, and in many ways uncomfortable to me as I examine my own thoughts regarding this current issue in our world.

One of the most striking pages to me was one in which on a field of white, the only sentence was this:

Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?

Some favorite quotes, highlighted as I read:

He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others – only for him is it an ending.

…everything he’s ever studied – is now his own private property and nothing more.

Today alone, six people died in swimming accidents in the greater Berlin area, the newscaster says in conclusion, a tragic record, and now it’s time for the weather. Six people just like that man still at the bottom of the lake. We become visible. Why didn’t Richard see all these men at Alexanderplatz?

The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.

Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.

When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. Somewhere here is where the problem lies, Richard thinks: the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others – people with the freedom to choose – get to decide which stories to hold on to.

Learning to stop wanting things is probably one of the most difficult lessons of getting old. But if you don’t learn to do that, it seems to him, your desires will be like a bellyful of stones dragging you down to your grave.

For a long time the old man and this young man sit there side by side at the desk, watching and listening as these three musicians use the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing to do with the keys’ colors.

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