Sunday, April 22, 2018

Go, Went, Gone - a book review

Jenny Erpenbeck

flâneur is somebody who strolls through life with no particular drive, no particular goal other than amusement. A boulevardier, a “gentleman of leisure” who lives off the wealth of the land and works hard at remaining detached. That image is contested by others who maintain a flâneur is a keen observer of the lives of those who cross his path, with talents not unlike those of a careful research scientist, but the term can also be used to characterize those we sometimes describe as “all hat and no cattle,” those who sit around and discuss a problem to death and never lift a finger to find a solution.

“Moral flaneur” is New Yorker staff writer James Wood’s way of describing himself when, in Italy on vacation, he becomes aware of the large number of Africans trying to cross the border into France and Germany. He remembers Edward VIII’s response when learning about massive unemployment in his country: “Something must be done.” Wood raises this issue in a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I’ll get to in a minute.

I include myself among the thousands of Americans looking for a way to join the “Resistance” to the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle health care, environmental protections, voting rights, all the while working with Congress to assure the rich get richer. Mostly I just sit and cluck at the state of things, the failure of democracy, the lack of will on the part of my countrymen to “do something.” Color me a moral flaneur.

At the heart of the political analogue in Europe, the populism and nationalism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere is the question of what to do with the Africans and Middle Easterners pouring into Europe in search of relief from war and social chaos. In Germany, resistance to immigration has engendered a new right-wing party, the “Alternative for Germany” Party, whose members now comprise 12.6 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel, normally a remarkably efficient stay calm, let's wait-and-see kind of boss lady, was nearly toppled from her position as world leader because of her policy of allowing in a million refugees and immigrants, hoping in vain that her fellow Europeans would take some of the responsibility for that task off her shoulders. Instead they circled the wagons. Merkel saw no way out but to follow suit eventually and narrow the flow of migrants, despite earlier insistence that Europe had not only a moral duty but a legal one as well to take in refugees fleeing for their lives.

The political “solution” was to make a sharp distinction between “asylum seeker (refugee)” and “immigrant applicant” – to make space for the former – Syrians, mainly – and turn back illegal immigrants simply seeking relief from economic hardship in their homelands. Here the Germans were able to hide behind the bureaucratic solution – the Dublin Regulation (also known as “Dublin III” and before that “Dublin II”) – which determined that responsibility for these migrants would fall to the first country they landed in. The problem is that put an excessive and unfair burden on Italy and Greece. Things went from bad to worse to cruelly absurd when the numbers meant that opportunities for work in Italy and Greece are now minimal while ironically, Germany, France, Holland and other economically better off destination countries actually need workers. Germany has the same problem with illegals as the United States and blames them for the fact that they are being drawn in by what in legal terms might be called an “attractive nuisance,” the tort law that states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. Workers wanted, in this case.

Twisting the knife in the back of migrants who manage to make it all the way to Germany is the law preventing them from working while they wait to be processed, knowing all the while, that most will be deported. From the German perspective, why should they give them jobs when they are not going to give them permanent resident permits. Probably. It's the uncertainty that creates the injustice.

Jenny Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s most noted authors, took up this subject in her 2015 book, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen, (“Going, Went, Gone”). It is a fictionalized tale of a retired philology professor (here we’d say “language and literature”), who has lived the past five years alone since his wife died, and comes up with a project learning more about the refugees he sees protesting around Berlin, and how they came to be there in the first place.

He uses his status as professor emeritus to fake a research project when he discovers that a former nursing home near his house has been converted into a dormitory for migrants in limbo. The migrants, he finds, are surprisingly forthcoming with their stories, and as the novel progresses, Richard, his name is, gets increasingly involved in their lives. Their lives are lived with little hope of being admitted as legal immigrants. These are not Syrian refugees; they are men whom the state believes need to be deported precisely to make room for more “worthy” immigrants. What Erpenbeck eloquently conveys is that to know these men is to understand how cruel one is in suggesting they are any less worthy. And this makes the novel, like it or not, politically sensitive. Erpenbeck was suggested for the German Book Prize in 2015 but was passed by, allegedly because the prize givers did not want to be caught taking a political stand.

This brings us to the question of perspective. If you are a modern-day German politician, no matter of what stripe, you don’t want to be caught dead arguing for “open borders.” Not only would that be political suicide; it doesn’t work on a common sense level, either. One simply cannot move millions of people from the African continent into the cities and country towns of Europe. The only good long-term solution is to improve the conditions in the countries of origin so there will be no need for its citizens to flee – and you can see how much easier that is said than done. If you are a person with a heart, and you hear that a young man has made his way across North Africa to Libya, climbed in a boat with his mother and father and pushed out to sea only to have the boat capsize and his mother and father drown before his eyes, but by some superhuman stroke of luck has made it to Berlin, are you really going to say, “It’s not my fault that you have no home to go back to; you can’t stay here. We need to make room for the Syrians.”?

I started the book in German and read about a quarter of the way through, without a whole lot of enthusiasm, on the recommendation of a good friend who urged me to take it on. I had trouble with the style, with what I took to be the cluelessness of the protagonist as a character. Rather than give up on it, I got the book in the English translation and picked up from there. That enabled me to read at a faster speed and whether it was that, or the fact that the book finally picks up at about that point, I can’t be sure, but it was smooth sailing from then on.

I think the sluggishness at the beginning is due to Jenny Erpenbeck’s effort to keep the book from turning into a romantic story, a political pitch for bleeding hearts. She manages, in the end, to get you to climb into Richard, the professor’s shoes, and grow as he grows in understanding. And to begin to feel how he feels as he gradually develops the skill to experience what his research subjects are experiencing. Erpenbeck does this with her sparse writing style. There is no dialogue; there is only the story being related from a variety of perspectives in a variety of voices simultaneously. Pulling this off is no mean feat. Overlapping stories, overlapping perspectives, layers upon layers of meaning. Richard is himself a “displaced person,” as is the author, an outsider to modern Germany as an Easterner whose East German pension is less than his Western colleagues’ pensions, who went to sleep in a socialist cradle-to-grave welfare state and woke up in another country where he suddenly has to put aside money to pay his taxes and his rent has quadrupled.

Since the book came out in 2015 it has had more than enough time to elicit reviews worth noting.  One that speaks for me is this one from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

Obwohl diese Geschichten sehr bewegend sind, appelliert „Gehen, ging, gegangen“ nicht vordergründig an das Mitleid des Lesers. Vielmehr bringt dieser Roman sehr reflektiert und durchaus unterhaltsam die Literatur als Medium des Verstehens zur Geltung, indem sich das Fremde und das Eigene als zwei Seiten eines Zusammenhangs erweisen. Oder wie der Anwalt die alten Römer zu zitieren pflegt: „Wenn das Haus deines Nachbarn brennt, geht es auch dich an.“

Although these tales are very moving, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen calls not so much for the reader’s sympathy. Rather, this novel, in a very thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining way, reveals the power of literature to make one see what is strange and what is familiar as two parts of a single whole. Or as the lawyer who likes to cite the ancient Romans puts it, “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, it concerns you too.”

The review in Der Spiegel I take strong exception to. It’s common to label as “orientalism” anything Europeans have to say about the exotic other from a far-off land, very often with justification. But what is one to make of this?:

Das neue Buch der vielfach ausgezeichneten Erfolgsschriftstellerin ("Heimsuchung") zeigt, wie schlecht es um die politische Literatur in Deutschland bestellt ist. Statt die Geschichten der Geflüchteten in den Vordergrund zu stellen, wird "Gehen, ging, gegangen" von einem Wohlstandsbürger dominiert, der sich weltoffen und aufgeklärt fühlt und die eigene, von Ressentiments durchsetzte Ignoranz nicht bemerkt. Erpenbecks Roman ist ein klassischer Pressetitel, auf Feuilletons und Preisjurys zugeschrieben; anders gesagt: auf Leser zugeschrieben, die sich in Richard wiederfinden werden.

The new book by the much lauded and successful writer (Heimsuchung) shows us what bad shape political literature is in in Germany. Instead of putting the stories of the refugees in the foreground, Go, Went, Gone is dominated by a citizen secure in his middle class status who sees himself as sophisticated and enlightened and overlooks his own resentment-laden ignorance. Erpenbeck’s novel is made for the media, for book reviews and those who grant book prizes. In other words, it’s written for readers who will put themselves into Richard’s shoes.

That’s not only nasty, it’s wrong-headed. I remember when Cry, Freedom came out in 1987 and I first became familiar with the cinematic trope “White Savior,” where what is touted as a story about black Africans (or American Indians or any oppressed minority) turns out to be about some white man who comes to their rescue. That may be an appropriate criticism for Cry, Freedom, but there is a logical fallacy in the suggestion that one cannot write about a white man’s personal growth when dealing with cruelty and injustice. I keep remembering that wonderful response by Alice Walker to criticism for not portraying black men as heros in The Color Purple: “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.” In this case, though, the charge that the stories of the refugees was not placed in the foreground doesn’t hold water. To my knowledge, a more sympathetic portrayal of the plight of economic refugees in Germany has not been told. The fact that they get to speak in their own voices is the very essence of what makes this book a quality read.

James Wood, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph above, came back to the novel a second time, this time to call it "(o)ne of the best novels published this year [2017] (and) also one of the most scandalously neglected, at least in this country." He's talking Nobel Prize. And he confirms my view that Going, Went, Gone, "is an effort of inquiry, not a political statement or a liberal appropriation."

Elsewhere, in lectures and other writings, Erpenbeck speaks of wondering about how much of her socialist paradise dreams she had as a youth she should hang onto in this brave new world in which she finds herself. How, similarly, does a refugee handle the yearning for home combined with the terror of memory and the need to learn the language and the ways of a new home, all the while uncertain whether this home will take them in?

Having taken up one of Germany's central social problems and written a politically oriented novel, Erpenbeck has to contend with the question of whether she has suggested a solution. Two quick answers come to mind. One, it’s not the job of a writer to find political solutions, even when writing on political topics. A writer has the same job as any other artist, to entertain and to provoke thought. But OK, no. She only kicks the can further down the road.

And that, in turn, inspires two more quick responses. Maybe that’s the tragedy: there is no solution (other than the long-term solution I mentioned above of getting the countries of origin on their feet again). And maybe she has inspired her readers to look at their fellow beings with greater sympathy. Cash, food, a smile, a place to stay for a time. At the very minimum a recognition of the truth that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Which I’ve always considered the essence of the bullshit that is what many in our culture call religion. That it allows one to live with the illusion that God answers your prayers but not everybody else’s.

That’s why I urge us all to get involved in some form of democratic socialism, especially now that the Evangelicals of America have decided Christianity means America first and the rest of you can go drown in the Mediterranean Gulf of Mexico. And ditto for the leading German parties, the Christian (sic) Democratic Party and the Christian (sic) Social Union.

photo credit: A search for the origin of Jenny E's picture leads to a home improvement ad. Can't find another link. Sorry about that. Don't mean to break any copyright laws.


SJH said...

Thank you, Alan, for reading this novel. I appreciated the research you did to find German critiques of it, as well. It was interesting to me that you enjoyed the English more than the German. I found it fast reading from the start, in English, of course! The stories of the refugees stay with me--one of the beauties of this book. But more than that, I feel Erpenbeck shows us the complexity and bureaucratic impossibility of the situation in Germany. None of that gets solved in the story. Richard creates a family for himself and his refugee friends, which we know will dissolve as they are one-by-one deported. Individual relations are so completely different from international relations!
We'll talk more in person.

Bill Sweigart said...

Alan, thanks for a great review. You've inspired me to put the book on my reading list. Maybe works like this will begin to counter, in some small way, the rise of the alt parties. These parties, along with the republicans here in the US, should be forced to take on honest labels. How about the I've-got-mine-now-bugger-off Party?