One of the best novels published this year was also one of the most scandalously neglected, at least in this country. I greatly admired “Go, Went, Gone,” by Jenny Erpenbeck (New Directions), the most prominent and serious German novelist of her generation. When Erpenbeck wins the Nobel Prize in a few years, I suspect that this novel will be cited.
If I say that it’s a novel about the European refugee crisis, I make it sound more portentous and much more abstract than it is; more important, I do a disservice to Erpenbeck’s appealing, pragmatic humility. “Go, Went, Gone” is not a novel about but a novel in search of a number of African refugees, and their lives in Germany. Erpenbeck, who grounds her fiction in careful research and documentary (she interviewed thirteen recent immigrants from various African countries, whom she thanks), structures her novel around European ignorance and curiosity: her German protagonist, a privileged, retired professor of classics named Richard, decides to discover as much as he can about the lives of some African refugees whom he notices, one day, at a protest in the center of Berlin. He is embarrassed that he knows so little about the men who are protesting in Alexanderplatz; if he doesn’t really know where Burkina Faso is, or what the capital of Ghana is, how can he know anything about the day-to-day indignities and horrors of the men he casually walks past?
Richard’s ignorance is, very likely, the reader’s ignorance. And when he decides to correct that ignorance, his quest of discovery becomes ours, too. The novel is an effort of inquiry, not a political statement or a liberal appropriation. Over the course of “Go, Went, Gone,” he interviews, befriends, and finally accommodates several of the refugees; we become intimately acquainted with the long journeys of Awad, from Ghana; Rashid, from Nigeria; and Osarobo, from Niger. The book’s political subject is, of course, heavy and complex, but the novel itself is utterly lucid, direct, simple, and honest. One line will speak for Erpenbeck’s entire humane project: “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.” I think if George Orwell were alive now, that’s a line he might easily have written.