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Novel set in Berlin (a pertinent tale of our times)

18th December 2017

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, novel set in Berlin.

Translated by Susan Bernofsky.

A pertinent tale of our times.

Novel set in Berlin

The author explores the nature of the shifting refugee population through the experiences of Richard, who is a retired Professor Emeritus, entering the Autumn years of his life. The narrative, too, is set against a backdrop of falling leaves, coming into Winter and then – with hope rearing its head – moving into a New Year. There is much about transition and change. Richard’s wife has died, they have no children, and he is essentially lost, clinging to routine.

The refugees from the African mainland have come through Italy to try and settle in Germany, and their plight first comes to Richard’s attention when he becomes aware of a group camping at Alexanderplatz and subsequently at Oranienplatz. He is a native German, originally from East Berlin, who actively seeks connection with this disparate group, seeking out to hear more of their – oftentimes – horrific experiences from back home. Their individual stories meld, just like the transient figures that comprise what seems to be an amorphous group of people, defined by their desperate backstories and by the colour of their skin. It is through his listening that the reader becomes acquainted with each history and in turn each a human being. These are people, not numbers.

They have come from Italy, perhaps from Lampedusa, where they initially landed in Europe. Germany Novel set in Berlinaccepts them on the basis of having a work permit in Italy, but there is no work for them there. It is an unthinkable bind, a Gordian knot, having to keep going back to Italy to register and return to Germany. Now that they are in Germany, each person receives a small stipend, free language classes; they have something, but it is not much, and so often the experience of being a refugee ends in a dead end.

Richard worked in the former East Berlin at the Humboldt University and he is well placed to understand the meaning of borders  and what it means to be on one side rather than another, how fate often cannot be circumvented. How, so often, an individual has no control over the future, and all that is left is a modicum of hope…

I think this novel works at many levels, it is beautifully and skilfully written and well translated. It occasionally strays into repetitive detail which can make it feel more like a chronicle, but if the reader engages with the layers, it turns out to be a probing and thoughtful book

I took the book with me to Berlin. How could I not with an image of the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz on the cover? It was certainly a very interesting and expansive experience, continuing to delve into the world I had been observing as a tourist during the day – but this time through fiction.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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