Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. 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.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

A Trip Across Texas

News of the World     Paulette Jiles     (2016)

Before the news of the world arrived on little screens, it came in newspapers. But in North Texas in 1870, even newspapers were scarce, and some people couldn’t afford them or didn’t have sufficient reading skills to get through the articles.

Enter Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes a meager living by giving public readings from newspapers. At age 71, Captain Kidd is tall and distinguished looking. A veteran of two wars who has also lived through the Civil War, he has the skills to survive traveling around rough and tumble Texas. Native tribes are still violently resisting the incursions of white settlers, and brutal Reconstruction policies have led to anarchy out on the dusty plains and hill lands.

After a newspaper reading in the North Texas town of Wichita Falls, Captain Kidd is asked to take on the task of delivering a ten-year-old orphan to her aunt and uncle, way down in South Texas, near San Antonio. This orphan has been redeemed from the Kiowa Indians, who had abducted her four years previously, when they slaughtered the rest of her family. The Captain is an honest and kindly man, the widowed father of two adult daughters, so he agrees to make the perilous trip.

The girl, who was named Johanna by her biological parents, has been thoroughly acculturated into Kiowa ways. She can’t speak English, but she makes her displeasure at being removed from her Indian family clear with acts of sabotage at the start of the journey. As the Captain and Johanna travel southward, the Captain realizes that the skills Johanna learned while living among warriors can come in handy on the dangerous trails.

This novel could have become a sentimental version of the American journey narrative, so I ventured past Chapter One warily. I was rewarded with Paulette Jiles’s spare prose that beautifully evokes the frontier, and also with her intriguing conjectures about the psychology of victims of abduction, both during and after their captivity. In an author’s note, Jiles directs readers to The Captured, a nonfiction book by Scott Zesch, which recounts the struggles of some of the children actually abducted by Plains Indians during the nineteenth century. I had not been aware of this page of American history.

I was intrigued by Jiles’s representation of the way Captain Kidd teaches Johanna English, with a little German thrown in, since her birth family was German American. As Johanna becomes more and more adept at English, the phonetic transcriptions of the bright child’s pronunciations change. Jiles values words—spoken words, unspoken words, cruel words, kind words, English words, Kiowa words.  

News of the World reminded me very much of the 2014 movie The Homesman, which is set on the Northern Plains in the same era and involves a similar journey. News of the World and The Homesman share a grittiness, and both explore the fragility and complexity of the human mind. Unlike the movie, however, News of the World takes us forward in time in the final chapter, offering a glimpse of the characters’ future, after the denouement of the central story. When I’ve become attached to fictional characters, I want to see how their lives play out, and this last chapter left me fully satisfied.