Go, Went, Gone is a literary fiction by Jenny Erpenbeck. It tells the story of Richard, a recently retired professor from the department of philosophy at Humboldt University. He’s a widower whose wife, Christel, passed away 5 years ago, and although he had a mistress while his wife was alive, he is alone now.
In this story, Richard becomes fascinated by a group of African refugees in Berlin, and he starts interacting with them. The book explores themes of identity, migration, and empathy. It explores the refugee experience with a compassionate lens.
At the beginning of Go, Went, Gone, Richard walks on Alexanderplatz but doesn’t notice the protest of men from Africa with a poster “We become visible”. He is surprised about this oversight when he hears of the protest on the news that night.
Aghast at having missed noticing the protest and with extra time on his hands, Richard decides to research the refugees. After abruptly leaving a meeting where he could not remain anonymous, he shows up at Oranienplatz where the men live in tents. Initially, he only observes that camp before going home to prepare the questions that he will ask the refugees. While he’s doing that, the government makes an agreement with the men to get them to move to an empty nursing home in the suburbs.
Interviewing the Men who are Refugees
As Richard starts to do research, interviewing the men to find out their stories, he hears many stories of war. All the men he speaks to have a tale of woe, men from Ghana, Niger, and Nigeria. At first, Richard is detached, showing up as a professional. At first, he can’t even remember the men’s names and calls them after Greek characters.
Over time, Richard starts inviting some of the men to his home, for small odd jobs and to play the piano. He has tea with some of them and a Christmas dinner. In turn, they host him, sharing their food with him when he visits them in their homes. At one point, he teaches an advanced German class for a short while. His main interest in the class was the beautiful Ethiopian teacher, but he never got the chance to befriend her before she was replaced with official German classes.
Over time, we see Richard grow from someone who is a bit self-important and self-absorbed to grappling with the issues of war, migration, and refugees. He learns about the countries where the men are from and the incredible circumstances under which they suffered to get to Europe. Then he learns about the law, and how it limits the movement of the men and makes it impossible for them to find work. Increasingly, he gets directly involved in the lives of the men.
When someone breaks into Richard’s house and steals his wife’s jewelry, he thinks the thief may have been Osarobo. Richard was teaching him to play the piano and had also given him a rolled-up piano, thinking he might be able to play it for some coins. Osarobo was one of the few people who knew Richard would be out of town. After the theft, he never met Richard again, despite several plans to do so. Richard considered confronting him, but in the end, he lets the issue go.
Some of the activities that Richard does with his friends include driving them and attending lawyer appointments with them, taking one of them to the dentist, hiring them for odd jobs, have them over for Christmas dinner. He buys land for the family of Karon in Ghana for about €3000. The final action is to house 12 of the men in his home and invite many of his friends to do the same. The only friends who he does not ask are Monika and Jorg, who he’s realized are casually racist.
In raising several philosophical arguments, Go, Went, Gone draws parallels with texts from many famous books and authors such as The Iliad, Seneca, and Plato.
From the beginning of the book, we learn that Richard lives near a lake where a man drowned that summer. No one swims in the lake except tourists since it happened. This comes up again and again in the book, the fact that the man’s body remains in the lake. I’m not sure of the meaning of this detail.
The last chapter is about a gathering at Richard’s for his birthday. His old friends and their African friends are all present, except Sylvia, who is very ill. Sylvia has been the glue in their friendship, arranging walks with Richard, her husband, and herself.
How Go, Went, Gone Ends
Go, Went, Gone ends with a conversation about love, marriage, and wives. The African men mostly don’t drink alcohol and are finding it difficult to date German women with the vast cultural divide to navigate. Richard shares about his wife’s abortion, which she had because he wasn’t ready for children. One friend reveals that Christel wanted children, although Richard had told another friend that neither he nor his wife wanted children. We see another layer of Richard, the man who can live at the surface of things.
Did I miss something that stands out to you about Go, Went, Gone?
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