Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

GoWentGone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Susan Bernofsky, took home the last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) in 2015, with “The End of Days”, the award merging with the Man Booker International Prize the following year, with the more well known prize pretty much taking on all of the eligibility criteria of the IFFP. “Go, Went, Gone” is the fifth time Bernofsky has translated Erpenbeck’s work (other titles are “The Old Child and Other Stories”, “The Book of Words”, “Visitation” and “The End of Days”), again resulting in a major prize longlisting.

Our protagonist, Richard, a University Professor, has retired, his wife is deceased, he has no children, how will he spend his newfound spare time?

The novel opens with two epigraphs, the first from Wolfgang Pauli;

God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.

Hinting that we need to look at what lies beneath. The book starting with various references to items below the surface, firstly a dead man at the bottom of a lake;

The lake is deep, eighteen meters. It’s lovely near the top, but in truth an abyss. All the local residents, including him, now gaze with a certain hesitation at the reeds, at the lake’s mirrorlike surface on windless days. He can see the lake when he sits at his desk. The lake is as beautiful this summer as in any other, but this year there is more to it. As long as the body of the dead man hasn’t been recovered, the lake belongs to him. All summer long – and now it’s almost autumn – the lake has belonged to a dead man. (p10)

Next the story of the subterranean catacombs under the Berlin Alexanderplatz, where people shopped whilst they waited for an appointment at the Town Hall;

Even then, unbeknownst to him, these hollow spaces were there beneath him, only a few yards of earth separating them from his feet. (p12)

An interesting history;

…the rubble-filled vaults beneath Berlin’s Town Hall escaped detection even by the Nazis, who contented themselves with flooding the subway tunnels in the final days of the war. Probably to drown their own people who had fled underground, taking refuge from the Allies’ air raids. There you go again, cutting off your nose to spite your face. (p12)

As Richard visits the Alexanderplatz there is a hunger strike by desperate refugees, he doesn’t notice the protest, it is a metaphorical blind spot, the educated not seeing the plight of the desperate. Here the references to the underground start to flow thick and fast;

Under the earth there is only more earth. What comes after that, no one knows. (p24)

What makes a surface a surface? What separates a surface from what lies below it, what separates it from the air? (p31)

…the earth is more like a garbage heap containing all the ages of history, age after age there in the dark, and all the people of all these ages, their mouths stopped up with dirt, and endless copulation but no womb fertile, and progress is only when the creatures walking the earth know nothing of all these things. (pp20-21)

Meanwhile the narrative remains quite simple, Richard finally awakes from his slumber and befriends a group of African refugees, men who are living in Germany, men who are asking for the right to work but are denied such as their route into German was through Italy so it is in Italy where the “human rights” obligations lie.  A subtle change from the oblique references to the underground and the surfaces then happens, where the topic now becomes “borders”. The obvious reference being the former Berlin Wall, with Richard being a former resident of the East, but there are also numerous other references in relation to the refugee crisis.

At the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person, the transition has to be visible – a transition that, if you look closely enough, is nothing at all. (p39)

Early on this novel uses short meticulously crafted sentences, ones rich in meaning as we explore the surfaces, underground, and borders. The experience requires a measured reading. As the exploration of the uninhabitability of Europe for refugees comes to the fore, and the meshing of the West/East Berlin story with the balance of excesses (food, knowledge, reading, sheer volume of goods) against the bare essentials of those who are eternally wandering, the story becomes murky.

With references to the Iliad, Apollo, Hermes, and Johann Sebastian Bach, the story moves from one theme to another, and then the impersonal approach of our protagonist Richard, a person involved with helping the refugees, but at the same time divested, it all starts to lose its focus.

Clunky sentences, for example, “Just as initially, when the men were still living in the suburbs, he’d considered their cell phones a luxury (though admittedly a luxury of the most modest sort), he also couldn’t understand why each of the refugees required his own transit pass.”, that require re-reading suddenly make this book a bit of a chore.

Whilst exploring grand ideas and the current refugee crisis, this book does question your own fundamental beliefs;

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness. (p209)

The title a mish-mash of irregular verbs and highlighting language differences, however it does also have a more pertinent reference in the book;

…it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theater. Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead. (pp221-222)

Starting with a wonderful premise, themes that could balance nicely against the reality of the current refugee crisis, this book is ultimately disappointing, slipping late into cliché and preaching. It promised a lot but delivered little. A fine writer, but for mine not a book that should be in discussions for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

5 thoughts on “Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

  1. I have yet to read this, even though I met her last year and have a lovely signed copy. Responses are quite divided and I sometimes think mine might be more favourable. I loved End of Days—for about 48 hours. Then it started to feel to neat, too contrived, too grandly operatic (she is an opera director). The attempt at a more documentary novel interests me, but, of course, I haven’t read it yet. Currently up to my elbows with editing and writing commitments, it seems.

    Liked by 1 person

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