Reviews — From the September 2017 issue

The Lives of Others

Does the social novel have a future?

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Go, Went, Gone is the story of a recently retired classics professor named Richard, a widower for whom a great void of time opens up once he has “turned in his key to the Institute” and withdrawn to his home in Berlin. He shops, cooks simple meals, takes walks, looks at the boxed-up and labeled totems of professional and domestic life that will never be unpacked again; in short, as he tells himself, he really will “have to be careful not to lose his marbles.”

Even with the stage of his attention cleared, however, he fails to notice that a group of African refugees has established a tent city a few blocks from his building. The men there refuse to give the authorities their names, knowing that doing so would begin the process of their expulsion. Instead, they lie beneath a handwritten placard: we become visible.

The camp is rousted, a number of the Africans are relocated to a vacant nursing home nearby, and all of this first enters Richard’s consciousness via the TV news, which makes him realize that in the course of his errands he has walked right past these men without seeing them. He admires their strategy of anonymity, for it reminds him of Odysseus calling himself “Nobody” in order to escape from the Cyclops’ cave. But something more contemporary, less academic, is touched in him by the plight of these men — which is to say, by the specter of a German government deciding who gets to be German and who doesn’t. Richard himself, after all, had lived and worked in East Berlin until the wall came down and that supposedly inviolable national border was simply erased. And other, more volatile German history lies just beyond his memory’s reach — “the mayhem of war,” his mother called it:

His father had no doubt engendered mayhem of his own as a soldier on the front lines in Norway and Russia. How many children did his father — himself little more than a child in those days — separate from their parents? Or hand to their parents at the last possible moment? . . . The boy could never ask his father about the war.

Intrigued, Richard goes to a town hall to discuss the refugee issue. After the meeting, something extraordinary happens, though it is not presented in extraordinary fashion: Richard, acting on his fascination with these young men and their plight — and with, like them, nowhere to go and nothing much to do — begins showing up at the nursing home. He meets the men and asks them to tell him their stories, which they do, in detail. People accept that, because he was a professor, this interrogation is some sort of academic project, but it is not: He’s just curious. He asks them a catalogue of questions about their former lives:

Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation? How many people are in your family? What did the apartment or house you grew up in look like? How did your parents meet? Was there a TV? Where did you sleep? What did you eat? What was your favorite hiding place when you were a child? . . . What did you think Europe would be like? What’s different? How do you spend your days? What do you miss most? What do you wish for? If you had children who were growing up here, what would you tell them about your homeland? Can you imagine growing old here? Where do you want to be buried?

No one ever asks him what he’s doing there, or tells him to go away. His movements through this most bureaucratic of settings are like those of a ghost. Even as Richard’s consciousness expands, his physical presence, or at least other characters’ capacity to notice it, seems to diminish: He becomes invisible.

This is a departure from the strict realism of the rest of the novel, and one wonders how conscious of that departure Erpenbeck is. The language employed to explain Richard’s motive for seeking out the men is vague and mystifying (he does it “for reasons unclear even to himself,” “automatically,” he does not “have to think for long”). He never understands — nor does the novel itself seem to understand — that his insistent, pointless, off-the-books interrogation of these desperate men constitutes a kind of humiliation of them:

Richard suddenly realizes that he now needs to know everything in great detail: He wants Rashid to describe for him every dish on the table set for Eid. . . . Eggplant? Tomatoes? Peppers in oil? Fish? Rice? Yams? Plantains? Veal, chicken, lamb? Did all the women sit together, or did each sit with her children at a special part of the table?

Ten pages later, he enters another room at the nursing home and comes across another refugee: “Richard explains once more who he is and what he wants, and the young man says: Okay.” But why is it okay?

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is the author of, most recently, The Locals (Random House). His article “The Man Who Loved Metaphors” appeared in the September 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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