Winner of Germany's Thomas Mann prize, a novel about a retired Berlin classics professor who becomes invested in the lives of a number of African refugees who are suffering under humanitarian and political bureaucracy.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel Go, Went, Gone is about 'the central moral question of our time,' and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling 'moving' stories about people who are very different from us ... Her task is comprehension rather than replication, and she uses a measured, lyrically austere prose, whose even tread barely betrays the considerable passion that drives it onward. (Susan Bernofsky deserves immense credit for bringing this prose to us in English.) Among contemporary Anglophone writers, this classical restraint calls to mind J. M. Coetzee, the V. S. Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival, and Teju Cole’s Naipaul-influenced Open City ... Erpenbeck’s novel is usefully prosaic, written in a slightly uninviting, almost managerial present tense, which keeps overt emotion at bay. Just as Erpenbeck does not really examine the causes of Richard’s change of heart, so she is wary of bestowing anything like easy 'redemption' on her protagonist (and hence on her novel).
Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound, unsettling and subtle. The prose, as before astutely translated by Susan Bernofsky, is this time far less incantatory ... The book could easily have become a well-intentioned polemic, but Erpenbeck combines her philosophical intellect with hours of conversations conducted with refugees to tell a very human story about a lonely, emotionally insulated man slowly discovering there is a far wider, urgent world beyond him through his meetings with extraordinary, vividly drawn migrants, each with a story to tell ... Great fiction doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be true. Erpenbeck’s powerful tale, delivered in a wonderfully plain, candid tone, is both real and true. It will alert readers, make us more aware and, it is to be hoped, more human.
Though Go, Went, Gone hints at the epic in its storytelling—Richard gives the men he befriends sobriquets from ancient mythology—it dwells primarily in the prosaic, content to document everyday conversations and outings. The immigrants face little direct bigotry; their main adversary is German law, which with frosty indifference throws up insuperable obstacles to their efforts to apply for asylum. The often exasperating reportorial quality of the writing—the understated translation is by Susan Bernofsky —calls to mind J.M. Coetzee, whose flat, affectless prose wrests coherence from immense social turmoil. By making the predicament of the refugee banal and quotidian, Ms. Erpenbeck helps it become visible.