Monday, 5 October 2015

Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, ging, gegangen

We know what Jenny Erpenbeck does. I even met a woman who was enthusiastically reading her The End of Days on a train to Poland. Jenny Erpenbeck writes award-winning novels interweaving stories of lives in German history. And she writes about women. Now, though, Erpenbeck has written a book about men in the present day. Gehen, ging, gegangen is the story of Richard, a professor of Classics just retired and casting about for something to fill his time. He comes across a protest by refugees from various African states, who have occupied a Berlin square to try to obtain the right to stay in the city. As Tony Malone wrote in his recent review, Richard is initially motivated by little more than boredom and curiosity to find out about the men, once they’ve been moved into accommodation in his own suburb. But as the novel progresses, the protagonist’s interest becomes less academic and more personal. (Seeing as Tony’s review concentrates on Richard, I’m going to look at other aspects here.)

In between, however, Erpenbeck does build in her trusted technique of patching stories together – the stories of the men Richard gets to know, how they ended up in Berlin, where they came from, why they had to leave. There’s a lot of geopolitics here, but also individual details. The professor starts by interviewing one man at a time, approaching their lives laterally: what songs did they sing as children, what dishes did they eat on religious holidays, how long does it take to build a hut in the desert? But as they become friends, the men’s life stories flow more naturally and we learn about both the harrowing details and the good times.

The novel is based on real events, when a group of refugees from across Germany marched to Berlin to campaign for more rights, occupying Oranienplatz and a nearby school and eventually coming to an agreement with the city council that saw them moved to slightly more comfortable housing, with the promise that their cases would be reviewed. Which they were; only European law, as we’re probably all now aware, flatly denies asylum to individuals in countries other than those where they first set foot on EU soil. Meaning that almost all the men, having been unable to fly to Germany because that’s practically impossible in most cases, weren’t entitled to stay in the city where they wanted to live with their friends. The city council refused to offer the group of protesters any leeway and set about deporting them.

Erpenbeck takes that situation and reflects it back though Richard’s appalled point of view. Because yes, it is appalling. Rather like Chris Cleave in The Other Hand/Little Bee, she gives us a white middle-class European to help us relate to her refugee characters. I think anything else, for instance writing in the voices of the refugees, would be presumptuous.* And I think it works very well. Richard’s initial view gave me occasional cause to flinch; although he’s generally open-minded, he’s a man of his time and place – a man who grew up in East Germany (again true to Erpenbeck’s form). He’s not used to people of colour, and indeed the men’s skin colour is mentioned over and over, at least to begin with, in a way Anglophone readers might find disturbing. Yet as their relationships become closer, skin becomes less and less important to him.

He researches the difficult legal situation from scratch so that we readers can learn with him, accompanying friends to appointments with lawyers, officials and doctors. He finds small ways to help the men but is angry with himself for giving nothing but cheap charity. Eventually, though, Richard does more than that, taking a political stance. I’d see the book itself as a similar step further than charity. While it includes a call for donations in the final pages, Gehen, ging, gegangen is much more important in that it helps us to grasp a complex situation and feel something like understanding for the way refugees are treated in Europe.

With classicist Richard as its main protagonist, the novel also explores the idea that human nature and human emotional lives have changed little over many centuries, another of Erpenbeck’s literary premises and something reflected in the title. One critic objected to Richard’s comparisons of some refugees with mythological figures, from Apollo to Tristan, saying it detracted from their individuality. For me, though, this quirk underlined the book’s moral message. And yes, I think it’s fine for a novel to have a moral message. What came across for me was that flight, exile, escape from poverty, war and conflict, whatever you wish to call it, has happened throughout history and that Europeans should not presume it can’t happen to us again. As such, we are obliged to take in those it’s happening to now.

Gehen, ging, gegangen is less of a smooth read than The End of Days, for example, with less supportive structure. That does not make it any less of a novel, however. Its topicality has rather crept up on it, which some reviewers seem to find off-putting. I can’t imagine that was calculated – instead, it comes across as though Erpenbeck was moved to write by the people she met on Oranienplatz – whom she names in the back of the book – rather than by any desire to make a buck. It will come out in Susan Bernofsky’s translation in 2017 – and I will be disappointed if it doesn’t win the German Book Prize on 12 October.

*Although I’m curious about my friend Michaela Maria Müller’s novel about a Somali husband and wife, which mainly uses a closer narrative standpoint but isn’t yet published.


Tony Malone said...

It's funny that it was only when I got to the editing stage of writing my review that I realised how much I'd focused on Richard, to the almost total exclusion of the refugees themselves. It's definitely a book about us, the people who are watching and could do something if they wanted...

Interestingly, one (German) blogger wasn't sold on Richard and would have preferred a female protagonist, something which (besides being impractical given that several of the men were Muslim and may not have let 'Richard' get so close) would have been a cop out. I'm glad she wrote him as a man, warts and all (even if his lusting over the temporary teacher seemed a little extraneous by the end of the book).

kjd said...

I agree, Tony, that it's about us – and I might have focused more on Richard if you hadn't!

That's an odd objection about the male protagonist. It works for me, and I love the way he opens up in the very final scene.