Kate Webb

A friend in need

Her thoughtful Go Went Gone sees the plight of refugees through the imaginative eyes of a retired academic in Berlin

The title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone, and the autumnal tone of its beginning — a classics professor retires, leaving him at home raking leaves, mulling over memories of his wife and wondering about the body in a nearby lake — suggests that this will be a book of endings, something akin to Anita Brookner’s stories of self-absorbed people in the twilight of their lives.

But Richard, now professor emeritus, proves to be a more unpredictable character. Unlike many of Brookner’s loners, there is the strong force of history in him. A precarious beginning under fascism and war, then a life shaped by the GDR and its abrupt cessation in 1989, has left him and his circle of friends adrift in the new Germany. They have only memories of their vanished country and some sense that the place in which they now find themselves, with its advertised values of reason and law, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For a start, Richard’s pension is smaller than that of his West German compatriots. Not that he’s complaining. As a child versed in ‘proletarian internationalism’, he’s fully aware that, compared with many on the planet, he’s well off: ‘Richard knows he’s one of the very few people in this world who are in a position to take their pick of realities.’

The question of what constitutes reality lies at the heart of Erpenbeck’s writing. In Go Went Gone she is at pains to show that what is often taken to be universal can be tendentious or dogmatically insisted upon, despite what ought to be glaring limitations. The body submerged in the lake and Richard’s interest in underground systems (escape routes from the Nazis, tunnels from the Middle Ages) suggest that beneath the ‘veneer’ of reality, much in life is hidden or suppressed.

When Richard watches a news programme about a protest tent city built by refugees in the middle of Berlin’s Oranienplatz, he realises that he has walked through the square without noticing this challenge to everyday life.

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