I’m not sure if this counts as “New Fiction” or not. It came out in English paperback in the summer of 2018. So I figured that’s new enough for me. But it’s been around in German since 2015, which is basically Dickensian times it’s so old. Well, I’ve read it anyway. Too late now.
This is a story of a retired professor who interacts with a community of African asylum seekers holding a protest in Oranienplatz, Berlin. The cover is doused in words like “significant”, “urgent”, “contemporary” and “vital”. If you’re already turned off, then go with that feeling because this book is exactly what you’re worried it is. However, if these descriptions entice you like they did me, then read on.
There’s not much by way of a plot here. Someone’s drowned in a lake, a professor has retired, asylum seekers have it hard. That’s it. Thankfully, to avoid coming across as educational rather than entertaining, the book does some interesting things.
Richard, the narrator, isn’t a particularly relatable character. This helps a lot because rather than preaching at the reader, the book instead invites you to learn along with the main character.
Richard writes: Do you have somebody who can go with you?
Karon writes back: I have no body
No body, he writes, and it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theatre.Jenny Erpenbeck, Go Went Gone, pp221-222
This kind of overworked idea is all throughout the book. It does the vital work of ensuring this is a novel full of plethora ideas, rather than something directly ideologically motivated.
Another interesting note is that because the book is German, the “armed forces are heroes” motif that you might get from a UK or US novel is far more complex. For me as a UK reader, it provided another bit of distance from the text. Being able to dissociate from one’s own perspective is highly conductive to empathising with others, I suppose.
All of this enabled me to feel I was independently spectating on events rather than being driven to feel a certain way.
By maintaining an independent mindset, and by making the refugees the most rounded characters, the novel has you rooting for them because you want to, not because it told you to. This is an important distinction, and makes the book into an exploration of a human issue rather than a didactic political onslaught. I don’t mean it’s free of bias. It obviously isn’t. But having a message of complicated compassion was far more readable than the sympathy-anger binary that this book could have been.
Claims of its importance have been overstated, but it’s admirably done and refreshingly different. Worth a read for those who like their fiction to overlap closely with world events.