Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 320pp, $16.95.
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 320pp, $15.95.
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 192pp, $15.95.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s three recent novels are about displaced people, their lives swept here and there by mandates of poverty, anti-Semitism, war, and political crusade. Visitation and The End of Days trace the same swath of German history, stretching in both cases from about 1910 to 2000. Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, is also about the precarious lives of outcasts in Germany. They are refugees from Africa, forced out of Libya in 2011 and grouped in a shelter in Berlin three years later. Their lives are as thin and as ruled by seemingly senseless laws as that of the Jews who fled and hid in her earlier novels. The huge difference between this new book and the novels that came before is that the luminous passing of lifetimes has been condensed to a few months in the present day. The fairy flickering that moved her characters through decades has settled down into a gray, newspapery light. Go, Went, Gone is less a transformation of material than a shaping of it, and its luster is low. It pushes us to think about the uses of art, and what kinds of projects the politically committed can pull off in this current moment of explicit racism and unchecked power.
The narration of Visitation, Erpenbeck’s first novel, floats over time, hovering at a ghostly distance from humanity’s toil and then flicking in for a scene, an instant, a tale. The central character, if there is one, is a house built in the 1930s by an architect from Berlin for the woman he loves. The novel begins in geologic time, charting the formation and then retreat of the glacier that leaves a lake. The people who live in a village on its shores around 1910 set in motion the human part of the story, which lasts through two world wars, the partition of Germany, and then a reunification, which strands the architect’s house in a legal dispute. But the lake itself, the narrator reminds us, is only temporary: “like every hollow shape, this channel existed only to be filled in completely some day.”
The action begins with a lyrical listing of wedding superstitions—the carriage carrying the bride must not stop or turn around; the fabric for the wedding dress must be cut with scissors, not ripped. The prose lingers at this remove, describing customs and traditions more than individuals, though we soon see a family with four daughters, and their various fates. Land belonging to one of the daughters becomes the site of a vacation house for the architect. The architect engages the services of an old gardener, who is never heard to speak in the village. The gardener is described in action at intervals throughout the whole novel. He doesn’t seem to age, and his care for the landscape is described in long lists of chores. He prunes the roses, he fertilizes the trees, he lays a path to the shore, he rakes leaves. A soft burnish clings to this landscape. Its seasons cycle, and the people atop it are viewed with little specificity, mostly distinguished by their roles—farmer, gardener, architect—rather than names.
Between the chanted passages listing the gardener’s tasks, we see more individual scenes between people, and sometimes follow their fates far afield. The Jewish family who had owned part of the land flees to Australia. The scent of eucalyptus intrudes on the orderly old world seasons. Their cousin left behind in Germany hides from the Nazis in a closet, where eventually her pee running over the floor betrays her. The most vivid and emotional scene is when the architect’s wife, now suffering badly from menopausal hot flashes and fatigue, also hides in a closet, keeping quiet while Soviet soldiers occupy her house. A young captain suspects someone is in there, and what ensues is a diabolical sex scene, all in the dark, where it’s not clear who is raping whom. Later residents wonder about this closet. They don’t know what has happened there, but we do. So might the little brass bird on the railing outside the bedroom, which the architect installed there to please his wife. This voiceless creature has witnessed both love and brutality, but it can’t tell, and it remains locked in an open-beaked gesture of cheerfulness. By the end of the novel, the neglect of the little bird seems almost more piercing than what happened to the various humans in its vicinity.
This fairy-tale-like remove of narration runs the risk of chilliness, or of quaintness. Erpenbeck has swapped the novelist’s tools of psychological depth for a folkloric tone and a wide lens on history. Yet even not knowing the name of the architect’s wife, or of the children who observe a different rape on the premises many years after, she allows us to see through their eyes briefly. The remoteness of the point of view then casts in great intensity those moments when we peer directly at the lives of the residents. Visitation reads like a magical incantation of a foreign land, and yet we know all too well the real Germany that spawned this brutality. Her next novel, The End of Days, is even more fantastical, a light and fleeting investigation of the same period in history. In the first segment, a baby dies in her crib at eight months old. We follow the fates of her Jewish mother and gentile husband for some years after this tragedy. After an interval, called “Intermezzo,” in which the mother’s quick thinking saves the baby’s life, we see what happens as this child grows up, and the family moves to Vienna. Here the girl dies young, but after another Intermezzo, the cards are reshuffled, and we see what might have happened had she turned a different corner the night of her death, and instead gone on living, and emigrated to the Soviet Union. By the last segment, the baby that died in the beginning has led five different lives, and is perishing at 90 in a nursing home in a reunified Berlin.
Go, Went, Gone maintains Erpenbeck’s focus on precarious lives, but without the astonishing remove that made The End of Days and Visitation so remarkable. While more explicitly political than the first two, it is also more conventional, primarily sticking to one point of view. Richard, a widowed, retired professor of Classics in Berlin, becomes intrigued by a mass of African refugees protesting in a city square. When they are given housing in a building nearby, he starts visiting them, and asking them to tell him their stories. He hears, one after another, their tales of flight, their sea crossing into Italy, and the further travails that ended them up in Berlin. He sits in on their language class. He briefly helps out in the classroom, and makes distinct efforts to aid some of the men. To one he offers gardening work, to another, he lends a book, a third he invites to his home to play his piano.
The men have come from all over Africa—Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso—but all left Libya for Italy during the fall of Qaddafi in 2011. They are tangled in the European Union’s legal system, willing to work but not allowed to, settled in one place and then moved on, given summons and directives they don’t understand, and desperate to reconnect with the families they’ve left behind. Richard calls them by name, and also by nicknames he gives them privately, such as Hermes, who has golden shoes. Richard lives in comfort and isolation by a lake, and has a few interactions with the neighbors and friends he’s known for decades. The predictable bourgeois prejudice of these white Germans stings Richard, as by some process unexplored in the novel he has lost these feelings or never had them. His friendships with the African men deepen. Eventually he buys land in Ghana for one of them, when it seems that this is actually a simple solution to the poverty of the man’s family back home. By the end of the novel, the men have been dispersed again. Richard and his circle of friends take some of them in, everyone with one or three or seven refugee men sleeping on their floors or in other available spaces.
Go, Went, Gone comes perilously close to didacticism, with its final scene of an amicable picnic, Germans and Africans together, seeming a directive for solving the refugee crisis. It is possibly a good solution. Richard, who had been alone even before his wife died, is now surrounded by friends. The men who were a mass of black faces have been dignified with names and histories, and given at least a crumb of work and role in the society they find themselves in. What troubles me is that a novelist of Erpenbeck’s craft and inventiveness has settled for what seems like telling us what to do and how to behave. The same artistry that made the first two novels so stunning—nameless, rote characters, a huge theme of the vicissitudes of time and history—in this case play out as simplistic, like puppets without the puppet theater.
Part of what makes Visitation and The End of Days work is that the reader is able to fill in much of the history from only a few scraps. In the second segment of The End of Days, the heroine dies at 19 and her younger sister takes charge of her journal. This private diary is dropped into the mud a few pages later. Years have passed, it’s 1944, and the younger sister has been marched off to a concentration camp. Erpenbeck needs to show us no more than the book on the ground for the whole fate of the rest of the family to rise up, unspoken and awful. We are able to fill in her fragments, and feel the emotional weight the dropped journal signifies. Go, Went, Gone works through a small period of time, concerning refugees who come from places that seem impossibly strange and distant to the European or American reader. Though Erpenbeck humanizes the refugees, we are unable to take in the whole fabric of their history because we are too ignorant of it. This limits the novel to its present day account. One after the other the men tell Richard of fleeing, of fires, of hunger, of ocean crossing, of people who took them in or rousted them out in various places across Europe. Their stories are moving, yet at the same time flat. Their stories don’t echo beyond themselves, like the journal in the mud does, and so the world in this novel hews close to an everyday observable reality. Some moments strike hard, such as an incident with one of the men, who has stopped speaking. Richard finds him on a park bench almost catatonic, and realizes something is wrong. For his silence the man has been prescribed powerful antipsychotics. The root of his problem is actually a toothache, and a quick dental operation restores him. This is a galling occurrence, speaking volumes about how hard it is for these men to be treated as normal within the European bureaucracy. The reader can react with shame, or smugness—I would never treat anyone like that, we might think, as we readers are good people. Erpenbeck leaves unprobed the complications of such good people, who are surely not as good as they’d like to believe they are.
Contrast this with the magical complexity of The End of Days, where good people make all kinds of small decisions that determine their fate or the fate of others. Everyday movements—descending the stairs, turning a corner, opening a window—have enormous consequences. Erpenbeck narrates as if from above, for example watching the file containing the heroine’s application for citizenship in the Soviet Union being passed from desk to desk, and put in the right-hand or left-hand pile. This is during Stalin’s purges. If her dossier lands in one pile, she will be condemned to death, if in the other, the file moves to another bureaucrat, and the decision is postponed. We see the file move here, here, here, and finally here, which determines whether she will be shot or sentenced to hard labor. Then the scene recomposes, and the file moves here, here, here, and here, until the functionary remembers that the woman he is reading about in the file had once made him apple strudel. He then thinks that if she is detained, she might say something about her connection to him, and bring him down too. The woman’s life, which has already been lost and saved multiple times, can carry on, or not, depending on something as inconsequential as pastry. Given the remarkable structure of The End of Days, strudel, snow, a flight of stairs become pieces in a tapestry. Out of these nouns and unremarkable actions are woven the monstrousness of the pogroms, the Holocaust, the purges. The vast pattern holds other figures too, resembling tenderness and love.
Marxist criticism, brilliantly elaborated by the French structuralists, makes the act of reading extremely powerful. “As there is no such thing as an innocent reading, we must say what reading we are guilty of,” begins Louis Althusser’s monumental Reading Capital. Reading a novel becomes a search for what it doesn’t say, and the critic brings to light the execrable practices of capitalism by mining gaps and omissions. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism uses a single line in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to forge his perspective on the novel, which shows how the mannered marriage plot rests on the labor of unseen black slaves across the ocean. The enormous appeal of such theory is the power it invests in the reader. The reader or critic becomes almost heroic in her ability to find and face an unbearable hidden truth.
The theoretical apparatus devoted to reading the novel has little to say about how to write one. When we bring our politics to the production of texts, it’s not clear that we can escape the totality of the ideology that blankets us. We look at gaps in the representation, who is made discernable, who has a voice. Yet there must be more to it than making lives visible. The solace we take is that writers can create freedom in small moments, to imagine a world other than what it is. In the sphere of the aesthetic, in the uselessness of play, in the fantastic distortions of our world that fiction allows, we have at least flashes of sunlight. It is difficult for those of us who have a political conscience, who want to act in the world, to find a way to make fiction do that acting for us. It may seem more pertinent to write an eloquent letter to our congressman than to write a story about a mother and her daughter. The urgency of the refugee crisis, of environmental catastrophe, of the daily emergencies scared up by our president’s tweets and executive orders, means no writer escapes the fear of living a futile life. The impulse to use literature to bear witness to what is right in front of us is very strong. In some cases, this works. Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015 for what are little more than transcriptions. Her work has a harrowing depth. Go, Went, Gone does not.
This then is the mystery of art. Surely we readers know at least something about the situation of the refugees Erpenbeck describes, but as media consumers we shed these stories, protect ourselves from them, turn away. Art that transforms the horror can lead us to linger with it, to absorb it and be changed by it. The huge remove of point of view of Visitation and The End of Days made something remarkable out of brutality. Erpenbeck’s earlier novels also hold out the possibility that we could be the brutal ones. Our small choices and our place in a grander scheme might well make us the perpetrator rather than the victim. Go, Went,Gone seems to display a world where bad bureaucrats do bad things, and good people will donate money. If that were the case, perhaps the problem of the refugees would already be solved.
Only once does Go, Went, Gone descend into a bit of European history that sheds light on the current situation. Richard recalls a story about Soliman, a Viennese gentleman of two hundred years earlier. A black man born in Nigeria, Soliman had been tutor to royalty, a Mason, a respected member of Viennese society. After his death, with the Kaiser’s permission, his skin is flayed off his corpse and put on a wooden model. His daughter pleads that “the skin of her father be relinquished to her, that it might be interred,” but the stuffed black man is nevertheless placed in a display case in the imperial museum. “Admittedly, the skirt of feathers with which the moor was adorned had been crafted by South American Indians, and so was not entirely accurate from an academic perspective,” Richard muses. This dispiriting little tale is beautifully rendered, and because Richard is a Classics professor, the stuffy academic sound of his rumination fits in naturally with everything else we see from Richard’s perspective. At last there is a context to the Africans’ plight. No matter what they do, their black skin prevents them from being seen as human. This calls to mind one of the refrains from The End of Days, where the Jewish grandmother is spat at and slapped away when she tries to shop in the market in Vienna: “Fire, locusts, leeches, plague, bears, foxes, snakes, insects, lice were names that had often been given to Jews in Vienna, but she hadn’t known that.” An enormous cloud of dehumanization sits over the Africans’ attempts to find a life in Europe. The Soliman story connects the refugees’ status to European colonialism, racism, and anti-Semitism, and there are no easy answers. The Soliman story also shows off Erpenbeck’s prose at its finest, where the dry, folkloric telling counterweights the appalling cruelty. She crafts here a mixture of childlike simplicity with the enormity of adult sensibility of the story’s implications. We can linger with this tale, rather than brush it away, as we do the unmitigated bareness of the refugees’ stories.
I was a reluctant reader of this book, feeling like one of the bitter fans of Arcade Fire after they put out yet another album that betrayed their earlier style and ambition. We don’t like our loved ones to change, and condemn artists when they seek out new directions. Artists need to grow and develop and take risks and try new material, and not everyone does that while still hewing to a style or voice or perspective they began with. If Erpenbeck had produced something mainstream and sentimental, that would be a different circumstance. In Go, Went, Gone she has the courage to take on a topic that many would perhaps wish away. Go, Went, Gone’s flaws lead us to question the power of fiction, particularly of the more fantastic variety. Though all three of Erpenbeck’s novels are clearly deeply researched, (as a glance at the Acknowledgements pages shows), it’s her elements of fantasy and unreality that make the records live again in a strange new light. No statistic could resonate like that glimpse of the floating dossier or the silence of the brass bird on the railing. In Go, Went, Gone, the further the narration gets from the raw data of her research, the closer we are to a truth that can move us. The weakness of the novel is that so much of it sticks to a prescription for good behavior, and we’re forced into praising its intentions rather than its actual achievement.
Angela Woodward’s new novel Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is also the author of the novel End of the Fire Cult and the collections Origins and Other Stories and The Human Mind. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
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