In Bookforum, John Domini has a review-essay about celebrated German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, whose latest novel, Go, Went, Gone (published this month in English translation), follows a retired Berlin professor as he seeks to comprehend and assist with the country's refugee crisis. While Erpenbeck was interviewing refugees and doing research for the novel, writes Domini, she realized that the key story to tell was not just the perilous journey the refugees took to reach Europe, but the lives they led before. Read an excerpt from the piece below, of the full text here.
“Other writers wanted to talk about love,” Erpenbeck grumbled, “about empty modern lives, things like that. But I thought: We are living side by side with stories like I grew up with, stories out of the deep experience of trying to survive. In the stories I grew up with, it was Jews trying to survive the Fascists. But now too, we are living with stories that will make history. These are in our own city, in a parallel world just under the surface, and again, people are simply trying to survive.”
But much as she needed to delve into that “deep experience,” Erpenbeck went on, “the story of the Africans’ escape to Europe wasn’t my main interest.” Go, Went, Gone includes such incidents, but these are sketched in jagged, post-traumatic shorthand: “Dead people everywhere in the streets.” The author found as she pursued her interviews that “the really interesting part is what came before. Since they didn’t come here of their own free will, what did they grow up expecting?” She, too, wanted to hear of the old house, the parents and their courtship.
“In my book,” she declared, “every refugee reaches the point where he must speak of this, his lost world. The world before the break in the biography—the hardest thing to speak of.”
Image of Jenny Erpenbeck via The Guardian.