«Wohin geht ein Mensch, wenn er nicht weiss, wo er hingehen soll?» ("Where does a person go when he doesn't know where he should go?") That is the central question of Jenny Erpenbeck's excellent 2015 novel Gehen, Ging, Gegangen. The novel deals with the single most important moral issue of our time, an issue that has transformed the political landscape across Europe and the United States: what to do with the millions of refugees fleeing war, climate change and abject poverty. To the Trumps, LePens and von Storchs, these people are most likely terrorists or criminals - alien creatures intent on destroying or subverting our "Judeo-Christian" norms and heritage. We don't really see them as human beings, because we don't want to - out of fear, greed, racism, or just indifference. They are invisible as people.
The central figure in Erpenbeck's novel, Richard, is a professor of philology in Berlin, forced into retirement and, with his academic routine now disrupted, unsure what to do with the rest of his life. His wife of 40 years is dead - they had no children, and his lover has left him. He sleepwalks across the Alexanderplatz, oblivious of 10 African refugees who have gone on a hunger strike to protest their dire situation as refugees. They refuse to give their names, but one of them has created a sign that reads "We become visible". That evening Richard watches a report on the hunger strike on the nightly news and wonders how he could have just walked by without seeing the refugees. ( "We become visible. Warum hat Richard die Männer am Alexanderplatz nicht gesehen.?) Something about the story catches his attention, and he thinks of his own story: as an infant his mother fled from Silesia to Germany, and mother and child nearly became separated. Like many, they lived through a postwar period of extreme deprivation ("Als Kind hat er gelernt, was Not ist."). At the same time, Richard is ashamed of his total ignorance about Africa. He begins to ask questions and conduct research: (Wo eigentlich liegt Burkina Faso? [...] Was ist die Haupstadt von Ghana? Von Sierra Leone? Oder von Niger?)
But reading about Africa and the refugees is not enough for Richard: He composes a questionnaire and goes to refugee shelter to meet with the men. He finds a receptive audience - the men are more than eager to tell their stories (no questionnaire required). In halting English or Italian they tell Richard about unbelievable horrors - losing everything - livelihood, home, family - from one day to the next, forced onto rickety boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Now they have nothing but time on their hands. Many have skills, but they are not allowed to work. Richard finds it ironic that the presence of the refugees has created thousands of part-time jobs for Germans but the men are not permitted to contribute their labor to the country where they are (temporary) guests. Richard gets to know several of the men - Raschid, Ithemba, Awad, Osaboro - quite well. Their stories are similar - varying only in the degree of horror. Raschid's (whom Richard calls "der Blitzschleuderer" since he reminds him of Zeus) has the saddest tale: when the militia in Tripoli forced Raschid and his young children onto a boat with 800 others he became separated from his wife. When the boat capsizes several days later, more than 600 drown - including Raschid's children.
Most of the novel is narrated in the third-person present tense from the perspective of Richard. Only in one chapter does the perspective shift to that of one of the refugees - Awad. The reader gets a sense of his trauma - he suffers from PTSD - and dislocation. Awad becomes terrified as Richard and the shelter personnel try to force him to get vaccinated against chicken pox and flees. One wishes that Erpenbeck might have taken the reader into the perspective of some of the other men.
Eventually Richard is no longer a passive listener: he actively intervenes on behalf of the men. He takes them to doctor appointments and pays for their treatment, he drives them to immigration lawyers, he brings one refugee - Osaboro - into his home to play piano, he even transfers €3,000 to Ghana so that a family could purchase a farm. Finally, when the authorities threaten to transfer the men to other locations throughout Germany, Richard offers his home as a sanctuary and convinces his friends to do likewise. Why is Richard disrupting his quiet retirement to help these men? Is he simply a Gutmensch - a do-gooder acting on some Christian or humanitarian principal? Or is he atoning for something in his past? Erpeneck doesn't give us a direct answer, although we do learn that Richard was unspeakably cruel to his dead wife - driving her to alcoholism. Richard is an East German who grew up as a refugee child in a land devastated from war. So he knows from experience that permanence is an illusion; none of us can be sure that we will be spared the fate of a Raschid. So the attempts by the politicians to keep the refugees out of Germany is misguided. What are they looking to preserve? An elusive "Deutsche Leitkultur"?
Ist nun der schon so lange andauernde Frieden daran schuld, dass eine neue Generation von Politikern offenbar glaubt, am Ende der Geschichte angekommen zu sein, glaubt, es sei möglich, all das, was auf Bewegung hinausläuft, mit Gewalt zu unterbinden? Oder hat die weite räumliche Entfernung von den Kriegen der andern bei den unbehelligt Bleibenden zu Erfahrungsarmut geführt, so wie andere Menschen an Blutarmut leiden? Führt der Frieden, den sich die Menschheit zu allen Zeiten herbeigesehnt hat und der nur in so wenigen Gegenden der Welt bisher verwirklicht ist, denn nur dazu, dass er mit Zufluchtsuchenden nicht geteilt, sonder so aggresssiv verteidigt wird, dass er beinahe schon selbst wie Krieg aussieht?
In Gehen, Ging, Gegangen Jenny Erpenbeck succeeds in making these "sanctuary-seeking" (Zufluchtsuchende) refugees visible as human beings.
For non-German readers, the novel is now available in English translation: Go, Went, Gone - translated by Susan Bernofsky.