Go, Went, Gone

Go, Went, Gone (2015) by Jenny Erpenbeck


Hanna Meretoja, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Turku Finland.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (2015, Go, Went, Gone) appeared at the height of the 2015 “migrant crisis” but is based on the occupation of Oranienplatz a couple of years earlier, a protest by African refugees against German asylum politics. The novel’s protagonist is a retired professor of classics, Richard, who has an East German past and, in the narrative present, gets to know African refugees who are looking for asylum in Berlin.

Erpenbeck’s novel deals with the relationality of memory by showing how we relate the new to what we are familiar with. For Richard, cultural narratives of the Holocaust and both personal and cultural memories of East Germany function as memorial forms that he uses in the attempt to relate to the situation of the refugees and to make sense of the German response to it. These templates both enable understanding and prevent it.

In trying to engage with the refugees’ experiences of exile, Richard’s East German past both helps him to see certain things and blinds him to others. In the beginning, the narrator draws attention to what the protagonist does not perceive. For example, he does not hear the silence on Alexanderplatz, despite the magnitude of this silence produced by the asylum seekers:

The silence of these men who would rather die than reveal their identity unites with the waiting of all these others who want their questions answered to produce a great silence in the middle of the square called Alexanderplatz in Berlin. … Why is it that Richard, walking past all these black and white people sitting and standing that afternoon, doesn’t hear this silence? He is thinking of Rzeszów. (11)

Richard relates the system of cellars under the Alexanderplatz to the labyrinth of tunnels under the Polish city of Rzeszów. Jews hid in both during the Nazi years. ‘Just like in Rzeszów’, he thinks (11/2015: 17). This act of subsumption, which involves seeing a sameness between the two, stops him from seeing what is going on in the square, out in the open, in plain sight.

It is often the moment when Richard thinks that he understands – when he takes this or that to be exactly the same as something that he knows from another context – that he is led astray. In contrast, it is the humility linked to admitting his ignorance and the curiosity of wanting to know more that lead him to understanding something new. In these productive instances, however, he also draws on his past, particularly on those aspects of his life that involved an experience of being lost, disoriented, or estranged – an experience of becoming a stranger, not only to others but also to himself. A similar experience of disruption is crucial to the life-stories of the refugees: ‘From one day to the next, our former life came to an end. … Our life was cut off from us that night, as if with a knife.’ (90)

A key question that the novel explores is how to find ‘shared points of reference’ (118) without subsuming the other under one’s own expectations and preconceptions. One necessarily has a certain preunderstanding, but what is crucial is the ability to revise it. First, Richard makes sense of the refugees’ life-stories through the categories he is most familiar with, and even renames the refugees after heroes of the Western mythological and literary canon (such as Apollo and Tristan), but eventually he gets better at dialogical listening and is able to let his preconceptions change. The novel focuses on the conditions of possibility of a genuine encounter in which something ethically valuable happens – that is, on openness and willingness to learn as conditions for a dialogical encounter in which presuppositions become challenged and categories of understanding transformed. The more Richard learns about the refugees, the better he is able to see the limits of his earlier categories, and the better he listens, the more he learns. Hence, openness is a precondition for new understanding, but the process of learning from others also helps one to become more open and undogmatic.

I see Erpenbeck’s novel as an example of non-subsumptive memory, which is driven by curiosity and openness, by a desire to engage with the other in ways that entail exposing oneself to the other and a willingness to let go of one’s own certainties. It displays an orientation towards the other that is characterised by a mode of dialogic exploration. Erpenbeck’s novel as a whole conveys such a non-subsumptive ethos: its narrative style emphasises the open-ended, tentative, and preliminary nature of its narrative endeavour. Its narration shows how closed, fixed, subsumptive narratives tend to be linked to a form of memory that is less productive in terms of creating conditions for genuine understanding than narrative memorial forms that invite dialogical, explorative engagement. Non-subsumptive practices of memory function in the explorative mode: rather than assert and explain, they open up new horizons for asking questions.


North Africa as a transit point… and return point.

Leaving their home countries due to threats to their livelihoods, asylum seekers across the African continent must endure continuous hardships as they travel northwards to Europe. As testified by Go, Went, Gone’s characters, the crux of this dangerous journey entails passing through some point of departure in North Africa, particularly the Maghreb and some of the Mashriq countries of North Africa, including the novel’s primary focus, Libya. While many of the people continuing this mass migration attempt their travel to Europe from these various coastal countries, Libya as a transit point has gained global attention due to its history of internal conflict and its central involvement in moving migrants north. The country’s ongoing history of unrest continues to expose the migrants on the journey to various problems that compromise their wellbeing and their human rights.

Following a forty year history of Italian rule, Libya gained its independence in 1951 and commenced a process of self-governance and rebuilding, a process aided by its developing oil industry in 1959. Despite the country’s emerging wealth, a revolution in the form of a coup d’état, led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, overthrew King Idris Muhammad Idris al Sanusi and spelled the end of the Kingdom of Libya. Rather than achieving harmony, the coup ignited a series of conflicts with other global powers, leading up to UN sanctions and the rising revolution in the country that culminated in General Gaddafi’s death in 2011. Rebuilding the country beyond Gaddafi’s reign proved difficult as rival governmental bodies, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk administration of the Libyan National Army (LNA) continue to disagree, culminating in the country’s ongoing revolts. The UN recognises the GNA as the official government of Libya, further complicating relations with the LNA who seek to depose the GNA.

Beyond its internal struggles, Libya became a central focus for the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, as the country became a transit point for migrants seeking entry into Europe from all over Africa. Although this started with the country’s increased GDP turning it into a possible haven for migrants seeking jobs, it worsened as the civil war raged on, resulting in an influx of migrants seeking to pass through the country into Southern Europe. The long journey through Africa and ultimately, the Mediterranean Sea is an arduous one with unpredictable success, oftentimes resulting in uncountable casualties. Narrating the lives of many who pass through the complicated journey to Europe, Go, Went, Gone discloses the tragic reality faced by many migrants over the years, who may not make it through the journey – dying in the deserts or drowning at sea, and who may be denied asylum and acceptance in the countries they finally reach. Within Libya, however, migrants and asylum seekers have faced countless barriers including exploitation on Libyan soil as well as abuse in immigration detention centres perpetuated by Libyan officials as recorded in a report by Amnesty International.

Adding to the problems of exploitation, is the ongoing issue of migrant smuggling. Migrants cannot achieve the journey through Libya and into Europe on their own, but depend on a highly complicated system of smuggling perpetuated by both Libyans as well as non-Libyans, who organise transportation from all over Africa. 

Image provided by https://www.researchgate.net/figure/1A-A-map-depicting-the-three-main-migration-routes-across-the-African-continent-towards_fig7_293873437

The individuals range from government and law enforcement officials as well as smaller groups of people moving migrants through the various borders. Smuggling networks operate on a multinational level, demanding exorbitant prices to smuggle migrants from impoverished nations across Africa into Europe. However, amongst the stories of smuggling, testimonies of abuse and human trafficking abound, as seen in this . Recognising the monetary benefits of smuggling migrants, many of the towns and cities in Libya along the migration route thrive on this new economy and have thus become human trafficking hubs. These communities facilitate the transit of migrants, likening them to cattle and merchandise. Depicting the ephemeral nature of the points of transit from the perspective of those passing through them, Erpenbeck describes them as, “one station on a long journey, a temporary place, leading to the next temporary place” (Erpenbeck 55).

Human Rights

Go, Went, Gone engages the reader in individual stories of displacement. Rashid (114), flees war-torn Libya, travelling to Italy on a boat carrying eight hundred people. When the Italian coast guard tries to rescue them, the boat capsizes; five hundred and fifty drown, including his two children. His story reflects the reality of the thousands of those fleeing wars, conflicts, persecution, poverty and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change, who have died at sea. Some deaths have catalysed public grief, such as the shipwreck carrying hundreds of asylum seekers from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013, and many have become almost normalised in a context in which the death toll continues to rise.

The International Organization for Migration recently published a briefing titled “Migrant deaths on maritime routes to Europe: Jan-Jun 2021.” Available for download here, it provides a detailed analysis of the available data on migrant deaths and on attempted crossings in the three trans-Mediterranean routes and the Western Africa/Atlantic Route. According to their research, migrant deaths on maritime routes to Europe have more than doubled in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, as the Missing Migrants Project recorded the deaths of 1,146 people. However, the suspicions of invisible shipwrecks, as well as the multiple posts in social media of families looking for their loved ones, indicates that the actual number is much higher.

Image provided by https://missingmigrants.iom.int/

Italy currently hosts about 170,000 refugees. Hundreds more have made the journey there, though search and rescue ships have been unable to save everyone. As for asylum requests, roughly 40% were granted in Italy in 2017, and funding from the government to Non-Governmental Organizations offering refugee and asylum-seeker services has since been reduced. As thousands of people are shut out and denied access to the system, many are being forced to set up their own makeshift accommodation in abandoned buildings or simply on the street, and to work in incredibly exploitative conditions. Efforts are being made to prevent these circumstances, such as the work being done by Choose Love, a new movement in humanitarian aid who provides search and rescue boats, food, or securing safe, long-term housing for those in need.

The southern Italian island of Lampedusa is one of the main arrival points for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa. As of May this year, about 13,000 refugees have arrived in Italy so far; three times more than the same period in 2020, and more than 500 have died, a reported four-year high. Most of these migrants arrive from countries that do not qualify for asylum. Those whose claims are rejected are in theory deported, but it is unclear how many are really being sent back. Lampedusa’s population has for the most part shown hospitality through years of migratory pressure, but in the European elections two years ago, the far-right, anti-immigrant League party of Matteo Salvini garnered almost half the votes on the island. In a BBC interview from May, Atillio Lucia, a representative of the League, stated “I want the migrant camp to be closed immediately and a naval blockade so they can’t access the island,” and that “They should be helped in their own countries, not come here where the authorities spend millions on them but let us die.” Last autumn, The European Union adopted what it called a “migration pact,” which included plans for more assistance to countries of origin in return for better policing of their borders. Additionally, in May 2020, the UN warned that the pandemic was leading to a rise in hate speech, xenophobia, and stigmatisation.

In the meantime, refugees continue to live with uncertain futures and sometimes dangerous living situations. Following the September 2020 fire in the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, efforts by Greek authorities to relocate refugees from the Aegean islands to the Greek mainland and other EU countries increased significantly. Though fortunately no one was killed in the fire, it sent more than 12,000 people, mostly Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees who had already endured a dangerous sea crossing, fleeing for their lives, forcing most to sleep in the open for days without shelter, food or water or sanitation.  

Image provided by https://radiofiji.com.fj/catastrophic-conditions-in-the-kara-tepe-refugee-camp-on-lesbos/991/

The Kara Tepe camp, which was built after the Moria fire, still houses about 5,000 migrants and refugees, though that is significantly fewer the nearly 13,000 people housed in the predecessor camp until this September. According to the EU, the new permanent reception centre will have improved facilities both in comparison to Moria and Kara Tepe. Many migrants, refugees and NGOs have called out the insufficient living conditions at the camp, especially in view of lacking sufficient infrastructure for the cold winter months, as well as the lack of education and language competence. As evidenced by the importance given to language acquisition in Go, Went, Gone, the cancellation of classes is therefore a worst-case scenario. Go, Went, Gone addresses one of the most critical issues of our time, facing it head-on in a voice that encourages active participation on any scale.