Leave it to Jenny Erpenbeck to write the most compassionate novel about refugees I have ever read. In my mind, even Exit West by Mohsin Hamid cannot compare.
Perhaps it is not only because of her beautiful writing that she is able to do this; perhaps because she is German she has an idea of what being a refugee must be like.
When I taught in Germany during the 1980’s the Wall was still up. My husband and I rented an apartment from a man whose father had come to visit friends and was never allowed back to his home in the East. We saw films of people trying to escape into the West, and it was horrible.
Our narrator, Richard, lives in Berlin after the Wall has been taken down. I found him to be alienated from his country in ways that faintly resembled how the Africans were alienated from theirs.
In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view out the window remained the same.
If being a refugee is like being a stranger in a land, than Richard himself qualifies as one in telling this story of his past and Germany’s present.
His terrain has changed not only with the fall of the Wall, but with the death of his wife, the absence of his lover and now the end of his career. As he tells us of his youth, in the East side of Berlin, we hear of pain and suffering which resonates with that of the refugees whom he is so curious about.
His curiosity expands into “interviewing” the African refugees when he visits them in the nursing home where they have been temporarily moved, then helping them, and finally befriending them.
Some of my fellow bloggers have suggested that this novel is more about the theme than the writing, and indeed, the theme of the refugee’s plight is relentless. But, the novel is compassionate, and thought-provoking, and in many ways uncomfortable to me as I examine my own thoughts regarding this current issue in our world.
One of the most striking pages to me was one in which on a field of white, the only sentence was this:
Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?
Some favorite quotes, highlighted as I read:
He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others – only for him is it an ending.
…everything he’s ever studied – is now his own private property and nothing more.
Today alone, six people died in swimming accidents in the greater Berlin area, the newscaster says in conclusion, a tragic record, and now it’s time for the weather. Six people just like that man still at the bottom of the lake. We become visible. Why didn’t Richard see all these men at Alexanderplatz?
The Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.
Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.
When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. Somewhere here is where the problem lies, Richard thinks: the things you’ve experienced become baggage you can’t get rid of, while others – people with the freedom to choose – get to decide which stories to hold on to.
Learning to stop wanting things is probably one of the most difficult lessons of getting old. But if you don’t learn to do that, it seems to him, your desires will be like a bellyful of stones dragging you down to your grave.
For a long time the old man and this young man sit there side by side at the desk, watching and listening as these three musicians use the black and white keys to tell stories that have nothing to do with the keys’ colors.
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I just skimmed your review enough to see if you liked it. Since this one is up for the Man Booker and since I loved the other Erpenbeck book I’ve read, I’ll be getting this one soon and hopefully coming back to agree with your review in detail. 🙂
It is unlike The End of Days, if that is the one you read, but that just shows me the extent of her skill. Erpenbeck’s writing remains profound and engaging and applicable, to me, and I will be thinking of this novel (and of the refugees) for quite some time. I’d love to talk about it when you read it.
I bought this book on a whim and am so happy to read your post. Now, I’m excited to read this one and experience it 🙂 So glad you posted about it and how exciting that its on the Man Booker longlist.
It’s interesting that both Jenny Erpenbeck and Han Kang are represented on the Man Booker International Prize long list again. It’s a testament to their tremendous skill, even though the shadow jury members have said we wouldn’t mind the prize being spread around a bit. 🙂
This book is so current, not only in Germany but here in the US, with the angst that refugees present to their “host” country, and the incredible suffering they bear every day on a personal level. This book really opened my eyes to their predicament. No where in the world to lay your head? And I have a place to lay my head every night?
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I loved her “Visitation”. What a story! Anyway, given its subject, “Go, Went, Gone” seems a must-read for everyone. It’s a shame politicians aren’t too keen on reading. The world would be a better place if they read books.
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I have not yet read Visitation, but I was so happy when The End of Days won the International Foreign Fiction Prize years ago. It was so worthy! I wonder how politicians would react to this; if it would find its way into their hearts. The issue is not a simple one. For example, one wants to say, “Get a job for goodness sake!” But if there are no papers allowing legalization, that becomes impossible. The refugee is really in a terrible hole. I have never read such a compassionate perspective on their predicament.
I’m on the wait list at the library, hope it doesn’t take too long. There’s a book about refugees that getting big press here in Canada (The Boat People), and while the story was pretty good, the writing is just okay. If love to read a book on this topic that’s really great, you know?
One of the things that struck me so deeply, and there were many, is that the setting for this is Germany. It could have just as easily be en here in America. The refugee problem is so enormous the world is experiencing it. We must find solutions for those who flee war torn countries and have no safe place.
This sounds like a thought-provoking, timely book. The featured quotations are touching.
Bookwitty is a site worth looking into.
Sometimes I think giving my favorite quotes is better than all the thoights I have in my head.
Bookwitty is wonderful! They are usually cheaper than Amazon, and to send a book with free shiooing worldwide? I take advantage of it! 😊
I’m really looking forward to reading this one, having never read Jenny Erpenbeck but I am yet to order I copy. I am secretly hoping it is on the shortlist so I didn’t prioritise it.
Thanks for the wonderful review.
Jenny Erpenbeck has astounding skill, and a well deserved spot on international prize lists. I was thrilled when she won the International Foreign Fiction Prize several years ago, and I will not forget this one. I thought it quite heavy on the theme, sometimes even felt like she was bashing me over the head with it, but the overall fact is it’s a powerful novel compassionately told. I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you read it.
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Your story of Germany was quite common wasn’t it? I was in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden for a while, and Germany was a different place entirely back then. In fact, it could be down-right scary at times if you were near the Eastern Bloc after dark. The book – ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ will forever remind me of Germany during those troubling times. Have a wonderful week!
Indeed it could be scary! I remember everybody talking about Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and how the U.S. soldiers and their dependents had to be so careful not to “trespass”, although I doubt anyone could get over to the East anyway. The Baader-Meinhof gang was blowing up things on a routine basis, including the section of the Frankfort airport into which my mother flew the week before. And, Chernobyl exploded while I was there…lots of trouble in this world. Jenny Erpenbeck surely has a foundation from which to speak about refugees with her country’s history and present situation regarding refugees. America is not alone with this issue, and sometimes Americans seem to think. Hence the power of translated literature, right? (It’s so interesting that you were there, too.)
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