Jenny Erpenbeck in conversation with James Runcie at the British Library, Monday 11 September, 2017
The current refugee crisis is without doubt the greatest political and moral challenge to face Europe since the fall of Communism, and nowhere more so than in Germany, with its own troubled history of totalitarian government, division, and mass displacement. It was therefore fascinating to hear one of the country’s finest novelists, gently but adroitly prompted by the writer and broadcaster James Runcie, reflect on the issue at the British Library last week.
I reviewed Jenny Erpenbeck’s first three novels for the Independent and the Financial Times, and was present when she was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her fourth, The End of Days. It has been inspiring to follow her development from the author of a brief, haunting debut novella, The Old Child, which dealt obliquely with the suppressed trauma of East Germany, to one of the most ambitious and accomplished novelists writing in any language today.
I read The Old Child (Die Geschichte vom alten Kind) in the German, and can vouch for the fidelity not only to meaning but to nuance and sonority of her superb translator Susan Bernofsky, who has worked closely with the author on all her books. Erpenbeck’s style is unique: clear and limpid, yet suffused with a sense of the immanence of history shimmering just beneath the surface of people, places, words and things.
Her latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, was inspired by the 2013 sinking of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean and the presence of a camp of refugees from Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Mali in Berlin’s Oranienplatz before the city authorities whisked them out of sight and into hostels.
Born in East Berlin in 1967, Erpenbeck was already 22 when the Wall came down. Her own experience of living in two completely different societies taught her that ‘things change quicker than you ever expect,’ and gave her some insight into the refugees’ alienation. All her books, moreover, have explored the themes of exile, transition, loss, and memory, which are central to the refugee experience.
Erpenbeck wanted to know about the lives they had left behind, ‘the things that were normal before they had to leave. They have to try to forget what they lost, but also memory is all they have. So there is a struggle between forgetting and remembering.’
Refugees, she explained, must cross several different kinds of borders: ‘real borders, the border of language, the border of law, the border of skin colour and all the racism that goes with it, and the border of becoming visible – to be really seen for who they are, what lives they are allowed to live.’
She spent a year talking to them, accompanying them in their daily life, including visits to government offices, lawyers, language classes and so on. Central to their predicament – and to the novel – is Germany and the European Union’s refusal under the ‘first country of entry’ rule to allow them to take paid employment until – and unless – their application for residency is granted. Erpenbeck was interested to know how they spent this enforced idleness. ‘This is the time when they’d start to have a real biography, but they have got stuck,’ she says. They are in limbo – ‘empty time’– while the rest of society are living in normal time.
Employment is also related to the ability to learn a new language. The novel’s title, conjugating the verb ‘to go’ (the satisfyingly alliterative Gehen, ging, gegangen in German) alludes to language learning, which, as Erpenbeck pointed out, is also a question of being involved in the life of a country: ‘If you’re allowed to work it’s easy to learn the language, but if you’re excluded it’s much harder.’ And in the hands of bureaucracy, language becomes a weapon to reinforce that exclusion. ‘They have to learn bureaucracy,’ Erpenbeck says. ‘Language is never a coincidence.’
The novel’s protagonist, Richard, is a professor of classics facing retirement. His occupation allows Erpenbeck to draw on two great classics about transition: Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Many refugees, she pointed out, are arriving from cultures whose history pre-dates that of the ancient Greeks by 2000 years. Richard also has to reinvent himself as retirement robs his life of structure, meaning and social contact; facing this void in his own existence, he feels a connection to the refugees, and discovers a new sense of purpose in helping them.
With the possibility that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – despite infighting and waning support – might win a seat in the Bundestag for the first time in next Sunday’s German election, Erpenbeck’s message, that ‘how you see someone defined as a stranger defines who you are’, seems more urgent than ever.
Since completing the novel, Erpenbeck has spent two years in activism, assisting refugees. ‘Only if they survive Germany now,’ she says, ‘will Hitler truly have lost the war.’