My complete guide to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone can be purchased from Insight Publications here.
In Go, Went, Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Jenny Erpenbeck explores the African refugee crisis and how European countries like Germany have responded to those seeking asylum in Europe. Erpenbeck blends real places, laws and situations with fictional characters to create an emotional and powerful exploration of freedom and confinement, and the meaning of life.
Jenny Erpenbeck grew up in East Berlin during the 1960s and 70s and experienced the social and political structures of East Germany firsthand. Although Erpenbeck herself described her childhood as mundane and ordinary, the political tensions between East and West obviously had an impact on her growing up.
Following WWII East Germany was declared the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, and Berlin – the capital of Germany – was divided in two. In response to people feeling East Germany via the ‘loophole’ of Berlin, a barbed wire fence and later a wall was erected around the East. Overnight, East and West Germans became separated from family and friends, and the wall remained for more than twenty years.
The novel also relies heavily on the real world African conflict sparked by Colonel Gaddafi’s reign in Libya, including the start of the first civil war in Libya in 2011. Over a million people fled the country and many remained trapped and in need of humanitarian aid. The crisis in Libya continues to this day.
Richard has recently retired from his position as professor at a university and is struggling to adjust to the life of a retiree. Richard, absent-minded and self-involved, walks by a demonstration in Alexanderplatz, failing to notice the refugees and their supporters. Later, he realises he had ignored the protest and decides to research the reasons behind it. Richard becomes more and more involved in the plight of the refugees, finally deciding to interview several of the African men after tracking them down to a nursing home.
Richard’s interviews move slowly at first as the men – and Richard himself – are unsure of his purpose. He begins to learn the very different personal journeys of the men, simultaneously opening his eyes to the vast differences between the countries and peoples of Africa. Occasionally shifting back and forth between Richard’s viewpoint and his interviewees, Erpenbeck shows their relationship slowly growing stronger.
Richard becomes more and more cynical with his country’s laws and legal loopholes that are keeping the refugee men trapped in limbo. The men are moved to another facility further away, and it becomes clear that their application for asylum will be rejected and the men will be forced out of the country. Richard continues to grow closer to the refugees, in particular Osarobo and several of the men he invites into his home. Despite the possibility that Osarobo has stolen from Richard, by the end of the text Richard, his close friends, and the remaining refugees gather for a party to celebrate Richard’s birthday and to share their stories of love and loss.
Ideas and values
For a full exploration of these ideas and values, including key quotes, check out my Insight Publications text guide for Go, Went, Gone.
The refugee crisis
The refugee crisis – and Erpenbeck’s criticism of German and European policies and laws – form the basis for much of the novel. Richard, representing a typical German viewpoint, does not ‘see’ the refugees until he decides to willingly acknowledge them. Once he does, his relationship with the refugees moves from academic to deeply personal.
The laws and regulations faced by the refugees are cold and sterile, so Erpenbeck focuses instead on the human stories of their traumas, their flight from Africa, and the continued problems they face in Germany. Erpenbeck criticises those who would choose expediency and the law over human lives.
Richard’s perspective on the refugee crisis and his individual understanding of the lives of the African men changes over the course of the novel. Even when he begins to interview the men, he finds it hard to remember their names and instead creates names for them from his classical literature canon. However, by the end of the novel he has formed close relationships with many of the men, and their stories have even changed his perspective on aspects of his own life including his former wife, his country, and his own future.
The meaning of life
Richard’s journey throughout Go, Went, Gone is an existential one: he begins by questioning the purpose of his life now he is retired, and focusing morbidly on the recent death of a man in the lake near his home. Richard’s cynicism and self-absorption colours his world view and it is not until he begins to interview the African men that he learns just how shallow and myopic his world view is.
In spite of all Richard’s academic knowledge, he knows very little about life beyond his own. After spending time with the refugees he learns not only about their traumatic pasts, but about their strength, and how we are all connected to one another.
Freedom and confinement
Despite the apparent freedom of Germany compared to the countries the refugees have fled from, their freedom is an illusion. The men lack agency – they have no control over their own lives. They are not treated as German citizens, are afforded few rights and protections, and are ultimately forced to leave.
Erpenbeck constantly criticises the European laws and regulations that deny these men their freedoms, and even uses characters like Monika – who talks about freedom only when discussing her own holidays – to shine a light on the casually racist sentiments of those who do not understand the plight of the refugees.
The importance of the past
The past can be both comforting and devastating. For much of the novel, Richard dwells in his memories, for example thinking often of his failed marriage, or the time before the wall came down.
Obviously, Richard’s interviews with the African men are also concerned with the past. Though many of their stories are of horror and pain, there are moments of light. The novel ends with Richard, his friends, and the refugees reflecting on shared experiences of love from their pasts.
Richard is a retired professor and a widower, and an expert of philology – the study of classic literature. At first he is self-centred and absorbed in his own problems, including his constant reflections on mortality and the breakdown of his marriage.
He first takes only an academic interest in the plight of the refugee men, but as his interviews progress he becomes more and more personally involved in their lives. By the end of the novel he is friends with many of the African men, and his outlook on his own life has also changed.
Rashid is Richard’s first interviewee and stands as the informal leader of the refugee men. Richard names him ‘the thunderbolt-hurler’ in his notes, a reference to Zeus and Rashid’s power and anger.
Over the course of the interviews, Rashid reveals to Richard the horrors of his flight from Africa, including the deaths of his children.
Apollo – named by Richard after another Greek God – is a member of the Tuareg people, a nomadic ethnic tribe. Apollo is sparing with his information and wonders why he should tell his story to a stranger. Nonetheless, his story is incredibly important in changing Richard’s perspective.
Osarobo is quiet and reserved, and like many of the refugee men seems to lack hope. Richard invites him to his home and begins to teach him to play piano, inviting him to a concert at Christmas. Osarobo does not turn up, but Richard’s house is suspiciously robbed on the night of the concert, and then Osarobo disappears without notice. The idea of Osarobo being possibly responsible for the burglary brings Richard to tears.
Karon is a mysterious and introverted character. Richard interviews him and learns of his home and family in Ghana. Wanting to help and feeling increasingly desperate in the face of his country’s laws and the callous treatment of asylum seekers, Richard uses his own money to buy land in Ghana for Karon’s family.
Awad has already spoken to a psychologist prior to Richard’s interviews but tells his story again to Richard in an animated and agitated way. Like the others he tells Richard of the hardships he faced on the journey from Africa to Europe, including his stay in Italy. Apollo and Awad both have moments in the text where Erpenbeck suddenly shifts the perspective to tell the story from their points of view.
Rufu is a silent and lonely man, a refugee from Burkina Faso. Because of the trauma he has suffered, as well as the poor medical treatment he has received in Europe, Rufu is heavily medicated. Rufu is complex and in profound pain.
Richard’s friends: Detlef, Sylvia, Jörg and Monika
Detlef is Richard’s closest friend. Detlef’s second wife, Sylvia has been ill for a year and by the end of the novel it is clear that her illness is terminal. Detlef and Sylvia are compassionate and empathise with the refugees, inviting some of them to stay at the end of the text.
Jörg and Monika tease Richard and question his relationship with the refugees. Their points of view represent the typical views held by many Germans towards the refugees – probably including Richard himself before the interviews. By the end of the text, Jörg and Monika are not invited to Richard’s birthday party.
Sample Essay Topics
- ‘Go, Went, Gone shows how an individual can make a difference in the world.’ Discuss.
Things to consider:
• Does it show this? What evidence do you have both for and against the statement?
• What kind of impact does Richard have as an individual?
• Is the novel ultimately positive, negative, or ambivalent towards the difference an individual can make?
- ‘Understanding the past is vital in helping us to understand ourselves.’
Discuss the importance of the past in Go, Went, Gone.
Things to consider:
• Whose story of the past is most important in this novel?
• Who is telling the stories? Why is this important?
• How is the past of an entire country or nation tied to the past of the individual? For example, how is Germany’s past connected to Richard’s own sense of self?
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