4 JULY 2018 | KAREN KAO
On 2 September 2015, 3 year old Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Ocean. He and his family were fleeing Syria. They had hoped to find a home in Europe. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck forced me to relive that event.
The little refugee lying face down in the surf. The worldwide spasm of grief and outrage. In the days and weeks following Kurdi’s death, donations to the Swedish Red Cross spiked. Calls for a permanent solution to the European refugee crisis grew loud. Some predicted that Kurdi’s death would prove to be a turning point.
Go, Went, Gone was published in Germany the same year Kurdi drowned. The English translation came out last year. It won the English PEN Translates award and a place on the long list of the Man Booker International prize. Erpenbeck didn’t win the latter but she should have.
Her novel focuses on a group of African refugees who’ve organized a protest from their tent camp in Berlin. The refugees demand what we all want: a sense of dignity and some purpose to our days.
Erpenbeck shows us the European refugee crisis through the eyes of Richard, a recently retired Classics professor. He’s oddly disassociated from the lives of others. He has a small group of friends, all of them East Germans who remember the days when the local supermarket was a kaufhalle. Richard’s paid less than his West German colleagues but he doesn’t seem to mind. His thoughts dwell in ancient Greece. He walks past the protest and doesn’t notice a thing.
But once he’s made aware of this curious situation, Richard decides to interview the refugees. He compiles a list of questions.
What vegetation is there in your country? Do people have pets? Did you learn a trade?
Richard has no larger purpose in mind than to kill time. He wishes that the men would simply answer the questions rather than digress into stories of capsizing boats, soldiers with machine guns or a father burned alive in his car. Richard has no idea of the trauma these men have suffered. What they continue to suffer each time their story must be told.
The New Yorker book reviews tend to be calm and collected. They’re mini-dissertations on an author’s oeuvre or obsessions. It was surprising then to find James Wood reveal himself in his review of Go, Went, Gone. He tells us about his summer holiday in Italy. Everywhere he and his family go, they see African refugees on the move. Observing them, he learns something about himself.
I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that, as Edward VIII famously said of mass unemployment in the nineteen-thirties, “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation.
There is a bit of the moral flaneur in all of us. A wall, if you will, that we build to shield ourselves from those parts of life that are too hard to bear. In that sense, Richard is an Everyman. He has his own life and concerns. Friends to visit. Errands to run. The fact is, he’d normally have no time for protests or refugees. Richard gets involved anyway.
the human condition
He teaches conversational German. He drives one refugee to visit his lawyer. Into his house, he invites another. Richard has heard the man can play piano. But he can’t and so Richard tries to teach him.
The black man and the white man look at this black arm and this black hand as if at something that is causing problems for both of them. Your hand has weight, Osarobo shakes his head, yes it does, of course it does, just let it fall. Richard holds Osarobo’s elbow from below and sees the scars on this arm that the arm’s owner is trying to control, the hand is prepared to jerk back at any moment, the hand is afraid, the hand is a stranger here and doesn’t know its way around.
It’s touching and humane but is it enough? This is no fable by Erpenbeck. In the end, the German government fails the refugees. I won’t tell you how but I can tell you why.
Dublin II is a regulation of the European Union. It was promulgated in 2003 in order to establish:
the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national.
Dublin II mandates that a refugee can only seek asylum in the EU country of entry. As a function of geography and the economic realities of refugees, the vast majority will arrive in countries like Italy and Greece rather than Germany or the Netherlands. Dublin II was an accommodation of the rich north by turning the poor south into a defensive wall to keep the refugees out.
Richard knows all this. He understands that the men he now calls friends will never achieve their goals. He even sees the futility of his own actions. And he engages anyway.
Erpenbeck is telling us there is no silver bullet to the European refugee crisis. For Erpenbeck, the only true response to any crisis is sustained empathy, engagement and accommodation.
an academic exercise
These are some of the concepts my friend is trying to teach his university students. He’s taken Go, Went, Gone as the focal point of his first year seminar. He uses the term accommodation in its most literal sense: to house two competing needs. Such an arrangement is by definition temporary. Needs mutate, ebb and flow, become canalized or dammed by external forces.
Richard meets a new refugee. This thin man is willing to answer Richard’s questions as long as he can go on sweeping. The thin man embarks on his origin story. He speaks of abandonment. Sweep. Death. Sweep. A suicide attempt. Sweep. The man with the broom understands himself to be a failure.
And now the thin man begins to sweep the stairs from bottom to top, the opposite of how Richard always saw his mother do it, moving upwards as he sweeps one step at a time, with the dust from each step falling on the one just below, the one he’s just cleaned.
Accommodation is the world of Jenny Erpenbeck. It is a moment in time. Today, the roof over your head may be tin. Tomorrow, you may see the stars. Accommodation is a balancing act perched over a bottomless pit. Don’t look down.