Review: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

In this beautiful novel, translated from the German, Richard is a retired and widowed Classics professor whose narrow existence is forever changed by his encounter with North African refugees stranded in Berlin. The heartrending tales of these men almost overwhelm the reader: Osarobo, who asks permission to play Richard’s piano; the Tuareg man named Apollo whose description of the oral culture he came from reminds Richard of “the connection between space, time and words”; Karon, a thin man with a broom, who says “I went to see my mother and siblings. I could only stay with them for one night, the room was too small….I looked in front of me and behind me and saw nothing”. The great pleasure of this book is to watch how Richard’s compassion and understanding grow as he comes to see how the deck is stacked against these men – poverty, war, racism, the insane polyglot of rules and regulations that set up barriers to work, to asylum, to hope. And how he struggles to do for them what he can, despite the prevalence of anti-immigrant sentiment in Berlin: “Denying them permission to work while at the same time reproaching them for idleness is, Richard finds, a conceptually flawed construction.” For anyone who has struggled to understand and respond to the refugee crisis, this novel is both heartbreaking and indispensable.

— JoAnn McCaig