Go Went Gone
By Jenny Erpenbech
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky
Read Sept 2020
The protagonist, Richard, is a recently retired classics professor. He is somewhat disoriented in these early days of retirement when the highlights of his day may include a trip to the urologist. On a walk in a nearby square he sees a “tent city” occupied by what he discerns to be African refugees. He becomes interested in how his German government is dealing with them and he decides to do a “study”. By the time he has formulated a long list of questions for the refugees he hopes to interview, the refugees have been placed in several living situations including a wing of a nearby nursing home. He visits there and begins a relationship with several of the refugees. Their names are complicated for him so he identifies them (only to himself) with names suggested by his classics background—Apollo, Tristan, Olympian, Thunderbolt-hurler. Over the course of the story he learns about German law regarding refugees, including the agreement with the European Union countries that only the country of original entry into the EU can grant asylum. Most of these refugees from various African countries entered after their (usually overloaded) boat landed in Italy. Italy has no work for them so they have come to Germany in search of work. Since they have no official status in Germany, they aren’t allowed to work. As these refugees are black, they encounter racial prejudice as well as the barriers of their refugee status.
The title Go Went Gone is an interesting one as it applies to several aspects: Richard’s academic career is gone (he is retired); his wife is gone (he is now a widower); his lover is gone (she’s left him), the country where he was born and raised (East Germany) is gone (being now part of unified Germany); the refugees’ ability to work for a living is gone (no legal status = no right to work); the refugees’ ability to stay in Germany is going (once their cases are heard they will be deported to Italy); the refugees are endeavoring to learn German and are learning how to conjugate verbs in this new language (although most speak several other languages).
The author’s depiction of Richard’s disorientation as a new retiree is very realistic based on this reader’s own experience—feeling a loss of identity and associated worth, feeling of isolation from former colleagues, feeling that days are endless in the absence of work. The disorientation is amplified by the loss of his wife and his lover. A positive aspect of retirement is noted—absent external expectations from the department, university, or other career responsibilities, reading and writing can feel freer and new veins of thinking are available even in texts previously well explored. Similarly his consideration of the impact of the reunification on the geography and societal aspects of his neighborhood and life as a result of Germany’s reunification are considered more closely now.
The story provides the reader much opportunity to consider regarding refugees and immigration—who should be allowed to work/what barriers are appropriate for non-citizens to their ability to make a living/contribute to society; what is the appropriate definition of “citizen” and who has the right to make that definition; are immigration laws truly seeking to protect job access for citizens or are they seeking to prevent “others” from crossing borders; how did political borders get drawn—why and by whom; who has the right to define “other”.
There are no simple answers and the author doesn’t suggest there are. The book’s ending is appropriately not the ending of the story for Richard or the refugees he’s met. The courses of all their lives remain uncertain– as is the actual case for all of us. What is clear is that the flow of refugees/immigrants has always existed and will continue to exist as people flee war/political issues and/or seek a better life than they have where they are. Borders are man-made. Arguments over borders are man-made. The constant flow of people away from strife will continue to challenge people to decide how they will accept “others” into “their” space.