Classi Lectures presents Cathy Tile Review on “Go, Went, Gone”
Monday, April 12 7:30pm

Genre – so-called social novel – set in the present and meant to dramatize, with an edge of advocacy, a real-life economic or racial or political crisis.

In this novel of displacement, Erpenbeck’s epigraph quotes Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

According to the UNHCR (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees) mid-year report, in 2016 sixty-five million people became refugees. Sixty-five million people were forced against their will to leave their countries due to wars and famines. Never before in history has the number been so high.

Among the many things that Erpenbeck accomplishes in Go, Went, Gone, is to personalize the human consequences of government policies.                                    Her hope is to make us care. “I think the wealthiness we have in our Western countries is directly connected to the poverty of, for instance, West African countries. The colonial nations have taken so many resources out of the African countries, not to speak about the slaves that were brought to the US. We took so much from them, and we destroyed the structures that were existing in these countries.”  Erpenbeck

In her review in the New York Times, Claire Messud begins by saying: Identity is one of the central questions of our age, addressed individually, culturally and, perhaps most dramatically, nationally — or more accurately, internationally.

British historian Frances Stonor Saunders writes in her essay on the subject, “Where on Earth Are You?” – “We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are.”

The European law that was in charge of the migrants who survived crossing the Mediterranean Sea, also referred to as “unauthorized entrants to the EU,” is called Dublin II. It allows all the European countries without a Mediterranean coastline, not to have to listen to the stories of arriving refugees.There is an emphasis on language in the novel. “It’s difficult to learn a language if you don’t know what it’s for”. This struggle reflects and symbolizes the broader problems of uncertainty, unemployment and powerlessness in the men’s lives.

Richard is a widowed, recently retired professor who is at a loss as to how to fill his days. His self-absorption dictates his daily routines; he is Everyman minding his place in the world.  He is a flawed and fallible but has the experience of fleeing worn-torn Silesia and living through the fall of the GDR. This motivates his empathy with the African refugees.

At first, their circumstances seem to appeal to him as an intellectual problem rather than a human tragedy, and even as he gets to know the men, he resists emotional involvement. Sally Rooney in The Irish Times

He becomes only too conscious of what he does not know. What ensues is Richard’s intellectual, social and spiritual blossoming.

Rather than dramatic climaxes, the plot is dotted with revelations about the refugee’s lives. They expose Richard’s prejudices and stereotypes, even as he changes. ( e.g. incident in the grocery store with Rufu)

The stories that Richard hears make the abstraction of the refugee crisis more tangible. They remind him and us, that borders are arbitrarily drawn lines of power and that we all belong to the same humanity.

As he hears and internalizes his new friends’ stories, he becomes increasingly conscious of the way in which the state cannot exercise the kind of moral judgment that he, as an individual, is capable of.

Richard is a man who has been able to make mistakes and thrive. His African friends seeking asylum in Germany, meanwhile, must constantly counter the worst stereotypes and argue, in a language that they barely speak, that they are worthy of safety and all the mundane joys of life: family, sex, intimacy, love, work, meaning.

Literature has long been regarded as playing an important role in the development of empathy. “Empathy is about developing compassion not for our family or friends or community, but for others—others who have no relation to us, who resemble us not at all, whose circumstances lie far outside of our own experiences”.  Prof Alison Landsberg of George Mason University – Fairfax Virginia

Must living in peace,” the book asks us, “inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?” Sally Rooney