STARRED REVIEW
September 26, 2017

The unavoidable truth

By Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Review by

From one of Germany’s most highly regarded contemporary novelists comes a timely look at one of the most pivotal issues of our time.

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From one of Germany’s most highly regarded contemporary novelists comes a timely look at one of the most pivotal issues of our time.

Richard is a retired classics professor in Berlin. Recently widowed, Richard lives a quiet, ordered life, until he sees a group of African men staging a hunger strike in the center of town. Curious, he visits the shelter where they live and assists in German language classes. As he gets to know each man individually, he opens his home, inviting them for meals, companionship, even piano lessons. He accompanies them on routine visits to government offices. He even loans money to one of the men so that land can be purchased for family left in Ghana. Most of all, he listens when the men share their often traumatic experiences of violence back home and maritime travel from Ghana, Libya and Nigeria.

For Richard, the crisis feels personal; born in East Germany, he was an adult during reunification and imagines that his own feelings of dislocation and confusion are similar to what the men may be experiencing. He plunges into the work of finding asylum for the men—working within the twists and turns of social service bureaucracy, as well as reckoning with a range of responses of his friends, some decidedly unpleasant.

Go, Went, Gone (the title comes from verb conjugations written on a classroom wall) is about being woke—a contemporary idiom referring to how individuals become aware of what is happening in their community and, once cognizant, cannot lose that awareness. For Richard, the plight of the African refugees is something that once seen, cannot be ignored; silence would mean complicity rather than resistance.

Jenny Erpenbeck, who was also born in East Berlin, directs operas as well as writing novels. There is something both stately and dramatic about the pace of this novel, which never loses sight of either the big issues or the smaller details. Ably translated by Susan Bernofsky, Go, Went, Gone addresses this yet-unresolved crisis with both elegance and urgency.

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Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone

By Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions
ISBN 9780811225946

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