This story begins with the hunger strike of invisible men, immigrants who live in a park in Berlin, demonstrating to ‘become visible’. It begins with Richard, a retired professor, who walks past them without seeing them and learns about their struggle in the newspapers. In the heart of the city of Berlin, which for so many years, was divided by an impassable border, many invisible frontiers remain. It is the strength of Jenny Erpenbeck’s writing to disclose them and to show, without cheesy romanticism, how the frontiers that hold fast are actually those set up by our systems of law.
Richard is your ordinary white man who lives a comfortable life, despite the fact that he lost his wife. He’s a newly retired professor of Classic Literature who is a bit disoriented by his suddenly empty days. Neither racist nor particularly anti-racist, he has never given much thought to the question of race or racial differences. When he discovers the migrants’ hunger strike, an irresistible curiosity compels him to get in touch with them and ask them questions. He may write a paper about it.
But as he asks more and more questions, and as he learns about the men’s horrendous pasts, terrifying journeys and endless miseries in Europe, he becomes increasingly committed to helping them. And that is how your ordinary white man, not racist but not anti-racist either, begins to actively help each migrant with whom he becomes acquainted, from lending them books, accompanying them to their lawyer’s appointments, to buying a land for their family. The fragility of these men, fathers, brothers, sons, appears in the simplicity of their answers to Richard’s questions, as if they were always on their guards. With the scarcity of their words, and the way they keep to themselves and don’t tell their stories easily, Jenny Erpenbeck, who has spent months alongside immigrants in Germany while writing her novel, succeeds in portraying impressively realistic portraits.
The major risk of this novel was that it would have been easy to make a white saviour out of Richard, lavishing money on poor black men. But this pitfall was avoided. First, Richard doesn’t give just money: he gives time and genuine attention. Open and unprejudiced, he listens to the migrants, and his help is appropriate to their needs or desires – because for some of them, learning to play the piano is just as important as buying food. But above all, the immigrants are not the only beneficiaries of Richard’s commitment. As is often the case, in helping them, the old man finds support for himself too: these men who become friends give a purpose to his days and his weeks, that would have, otherwise, stretched infinitely in the shapeless boredom of retirement. The stories they accept to tell him are token of their trust, so that when a story is told (one of them on Christmas Eve), Richard knows that they are offering a present. The bonds of affection and confidence shared by the characters are just one the many highlights of this novel.
What is more, Erpenbeck exposes Richard’s weaknesses. When Richard, at the local supermarket, stumbles upon a migrant and realises that his purse is not in his pocket, he wonders, for a few seconds, whether the migrant might have stolen it. Yet, the migrant immediately offers to pay for his errands, adamantly refusing Richard’s money when the latter wants to pay him back. Richard is both ashamed by his reaction and humbled by that of the young man. He realises with unease how conditioned he is to suspect the Black man, even though he’s been witness to the migrants’ generosity towards him.
On the other hand, when Richard’s house is burgled, many hints point to one of the migrants whom Richard frequently welcomed, and who, strangely enough, shuns him after the incident. Richard doesn’t lodge a complaint; he is not even hurt by Osaboro’s act. He can’t know for certain that it was him, nor does he persist in trying to know, when it becomes clear that Osaboro is avoiding him. The reader might really want to know if Osaboro is guilty or not, but Erpenbeck never gives us a definitive answer, and like Schrodinger’s cat which might be alive or dead, and which is both at the same time, Osaboro might be guilty or he might not. The fact that Richard doesn’t seek to know and doesn’t stop supporting other migrants is how Erpenbeck shares a lesson of humanity: the point is not about Osaboro’s guilt, the point is whether one is ready to help other humans nonetheless.
As a reader, particularly if you are a (young) woman, you may struggle to identify with Richard. Yet if you are a white person, no matter your gender, there are certainly moments when, observing your heart, you just have to admit that you might be assailed by the same doubts, you might be guilty of displaying similar, casually racist thoughts. Richard’s honesty triggers yours. It holds a mirror to you, for you to have a good frank look at it, see what’s ugly, and remove it from your heart.
You may condemn Richard and inwardly congratulate yourself, “I would never have thought such a thing!”. I did that, particularly during the supermarket episode. But Richard’s growing emotional, economical, and political involvement with the migrants, his increasingly generous actions will inevitably have you wonder if you would do the same. True, Richard can be awkward, but, as old as he is, he is still willing to learn and unlearn, and he hasn’t forgotten the lessons of his past in the Soviet era. When he witnesses the violence increase between migrants and police, he thinks: “Have people forgotten in Berlin of all places that a border isn’t just measured by an opponent’s stature but in fact creates him?” Instead of being selfish or bitter, like some of his friends, Richard is open, curious and refreshingly humane. He helps the men he makes friends with naturally, without seeking gratitude, just because he has come to care for them. His humanity knows no borders.
Opposite to Richard on the compassion spectrum, the law reigns supreme. “The practical thing about a law is that no one person made it, so no one is personally responsible for it”, Richard remarks at some point. Through the eyes of the old man, who is utterly new to the complex administrative requirements for getting asylum, Jenny Erpenbeck introduces the reader to the manifold and often impossibly contradictory demands of European regulations concerning immigration. Most of the men Richard deals with don’t speak German and they have to navigate an administration that seems to make things difficult intentionally. In the administrative realm, fears, honesty, distress, tragedies, willingness are of no consequence. And yet, the migrants all accept this fact, without anger and without bitterness. They bear the brunt of these injustices without complaining and merely ask for the possibility to work to support themselves. The maze of the laws which protect borders without humanity and in which they are imprisoned threatens to devour them. And although this is an unexpected battle, they play by the rules and refuse to lose their dignity. The actions they launch and the violence they are victim of, in consequence of their protests, are heart-wrenching and infuriating.
In Go, Went, Gone, the voices are embroidered in the thread of the narrative without quotation marks. The dialogues are signalled by hard returns only, so that the text seems to be inhabited by different and more or less anonymous voices that are not always distinguished from the narration. Those men are invisible in the beginning of the novel, when Richard walks past them without seeing them, but Jenny Erpenbeck gives them a voice. If you don’t see them, you can hear them through Erpenbeck’s words, and after reading her novel, you will certainly see migrants in a different light and maybe imagine a tenth of what they have suffered before they arrived here, destitute, alone, and unsafe. Whether we’re inclined towards Richard’s humanity without borders, or prefer to protect borders without humanity, is your call.