A Conversation about Asylum Seekers in Germany and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Novel Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (2015) [Go, Went, Gone (2017)]
This is part of our special feature on forced migration, Narration on the Move.
German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s prize-winning, best-selling 2015 novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky, 2017) featured prominently in several panels at the Conference of the Council for European Studies held in Madrid, Spain in June 2019. Inspired by an actual hunger strike conducted by African asylum seekers in Berlin in 2012, and published just as the Syrian refugee wave peaked in 2015, Erpenbeck’s novel centers on Richard, a recently retired Classics professor in Berlin, who befriends a group of African men trying to get the Berlin Senate to consider their applications for asylum and becomes gradually aware of the many challenges they face in trying to start their lives over in Europe. Three of us who presented on the novel at the conference discussed our respective interpretations of the novel and its relevance to the topic of forced migration.
—Julie K. Allen, Chunjie Zhang, and Sabine Zimmermann, for EuropeNow
Julie K. Allen I’ve taught Erpenbeck’s novel in several courses on migration recently and was thrilled to see so many other presentations about it at the conference, since it is so relevant to the conference theme of “Sovereignties in Contention.” All of the populist drum-beating about the “invasion” of affluent western countries by impoverished migrants from the global South seems directly linked to the adoption of national policies designed to impede the movement of migrants, for example in the UK, Germany, Hungary, and Italy. The right of sovereign states and supranational organizations like the EU to make and enact policies regarding access to and settlement within their territories is one that citizens delegate to their governments, of course, but where does this situation leave citizens of a state who disagree with these policy decisions? What rights does the sovereign subject have with regard to immigrant policies that she considers inhumane?
To my mind, Erpenbeck’s novel exemplifies the empathetic power of literature to empower readers to claim their sovereignty as subjects and act according to their consciences when faced with refugee policies that violate human dignity. While some of her characters see the destabilization of distinct borders as a threat to state sovereignty, her protagonist Richard comes to the realization over the course of the novel that it is the very notion of borders as fixed and ideally impenetrable, demarcating a clearly defined inside from an outside, that poses a greater threat to the stability and well-being of both individual states and the global community.
Chunjie Zhang Go, Went, Gone illustrates how Richard gradually realizes that the laws and regulations concerning immigration and refugees are not suited to help people in great need, effectively calling state sovereignty into question. The anecdotes narrated in the novel critique the uncontested exercise of state sovereignty in the form of political government as well as jurisdiction claims. Erpenbeck makes it clear that the German government, or at least the city of Berlin, does not intend to solve the problems and concerns raised by the refugees in their protest. They merely want to deflect the issue by ignoring and separating them. She shows that German immigration laws often impose greater burden on refugees who have already endured a great deal in their home countries. For example, when the African refugees who protested together at Oranienplatz request to stay together as a group, since, as the narrator notes, that they have no family in Germany, just each other as friends, their request is denied on the basis of the law rather than common sense. Soon afterward, the Berlin senate’s decision to move the refugees to a remote location outside of the city center attempts to render the highly controversial protest at Oranienplatz invisible. The relocation makes it more difficult for Richard to visit his refugee friends and for them to access the city. Objectively, this political strategy of relocating the refugees effectively reduces the visibility and urgency of the refugee problem in the public sphere.
Sabine Zimmermann Erpenbeck’s novel demonstrates how, since the control of migration is crucial to state sovereignty, irregular migration is often viewed as a threat. Following the argument that states have a sovereign right to control who crosses their borders, irregular migrants are perceived to undermine state sovereignty; however, in most cases—as in Germany—the political significance of irregular migration greatly outweighs its numerical significance. By documenting how the city of Berlin treats one particular group of irregular migrants, Go, Went, Gone illustrates the “schizophrenia” of many Western nation-states that place great emphasis on the principle of asylum while at the same time imposing multiple policies that contradict the idea of refuge (Gibney 2004). For example, the novel highlights the Berlin Senator’s calculated tactics “to provide support within the limits of her political jurisdiction” when reacting to the African asylum seekers who protested on Oranienplatz. Including the wording from this actual “agreement” between the Berlin Senate and the African migrants introduces an illustrative intertextual element, and Richard, together with the novel’s omniscient narrator, reflects that “language is never a coincidence” and that “a limit, this much is clear, is nothing more than a border” (103). Aided by the motifs of “limits” and “invisible borders”, the novel underscores that it is only “the social construct of illegality” (Chavez 2007), accompanied by the absence of a polity advocating on their behalf, which forces survival migrants to embark on a life very different from that of privileged migrants.
Chunjie Zhang Clearly the novel lends itself to many different interpretative strategies. What historical or theoretical concerns informed each of your readings of migration issues in Go, Went, Gone for your papers at the conference? From my perspective, the elements dealing with colonial history and neocolonialism are the most important. This aspect distinguishes Erpenbeck’s novel from many other contemporary German literary works about refugees. Since the German Empire only had colonies for a relatively short period before World War I, postcolonial studies have not flourished as much in German studies and in German-speaking countries. Scholarly studies about Germany’s colonial past and its present impact have not been able to draw as much public and academic attention as in the US. Since Erpenbeck subtly weaves the theme of colonialism with the refugee crisis, postcolonial and decolonial theories informed my reading of the novel, which links the current refugee crisis to European colonial history (Chakrabarty 2012; Mignolo/Walsh 2018; Goyal 2017). Erpenbeck’s novel addresses important issues such as ineffective and inhumane immigration laws, the similarity between the experience of German refugees during the Nazi period and that of the contemporary refugees in Europe, and the tragic drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean.
Julie K. Allen The question of how the state tries to control inclusion and exclusion as a means of justifying its own existence was central to my analysis. Immigration policies may purport to be based on objective evaluations of economic and logistical factors, but at their core, they reflect ideological considerations about what kind of people “belong” within a given community. I drew heavily on Aoileann Ní Mhurchú’s 2014 book Ambiguous Citizenship in an Age of Global Migration, in which she questions the “supposed obviousness of the idea of state sovereignty [sovereignty as an attribute of the state] and the binary nature of political subjectivity as always already (and only) informed of dualistic claims about precise particularity and humanity” (133). In other words, the assumption that sovereignty is both inherent and exclusive to the state disregards both the delegation of this authority from the people and the limits of the sovereign state can actually control. Erpenbeck’s novel shows how inexorable transnational flows of people, goods, and capital undermine the spatial and temporal limits of states, and how the state’s desire to control narratives of identity often conflicts with the desire of individuals to act ethically and humanely, in areas from incarceration to education to migration.
Sabine Zimmermann For me, Erpenbeck takes aim at the question, “Who is responsible for the refugee?” (Gibney 2018), for which there still no coherent response in national and international political discourses. Asylum-seekers and “survival migrants”, i.e. those who simply cannot secure the minimum conditions of human dignity in their country of origin and thus attempt to gain access to European polities, find that human rights, which are based on a vision of universal personhood (Joas 2013), do not impose any obligations on nation-states to offer permanent resettlement. The global refugee system was designed in the late 1940s but “the causes of flight and the appropriate responses to flight have changed radically” (Betts and Collier 2017: 4). Resettlement to a third country is typically out of reach, as “less than one percent of the world’s refugees will be lucky enough to get that lottery ticket” (Betts and Collier 2017: 8). Even though migration is welcomed and perceived as essential in many societies today, survival migrants like those featured in Go, Went, Gone are not viewed as persons but pejoratively as forced nomads. Unlike the celebrated nomad figure proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, the forced nomad has little to no agency, due to being socially, culturally, and politically excluded. And once the “condition of illegality” has been imposed, invisible boundaries spring up such that forced migrants find themselves on “a never-ending journey” within the physical space of Europe (Innes 2015:501). In my analysis, Erpenbeck’s novel confirms that “the right to have rights” (Arendt 1985:298) is not available to all those present within European geographical borders, where human dignity and human rights apparently depend on citizenship in a European country.
Julie K. Allen How do each of you feel about some critics’ disapproval of Erpenbeck’s choice to make a white, upper-middle-class German intellectual the narrative focus of her novel, rather than letting a refugee voice control the narrative? I think that although the use of a naïve narrator like Richard to fill in holes in the reader’s own knowledge can seem contrived, Erpenbeck invests him with enough humanity—in part through his own life experiences of fleeing war-torn Silesia in 1945 and living through the fall of the GDR, as well as the loss of his own wife and unborn child—to motivate his empathy with the African refugees. His positionality allows German and English-speaking readers to relate to his concerns about the justifiability of the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare the refugees must navigate and his questions about how, as a citizen, to react to the failure of the state to address the refugees’ existential needs.
Initially, it seems that Richard is inclined to rely on the state’s policy-making apparatus to deal with this issue, but over the course of the novel, as he interviews the men and hears their 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. The state’s primary concern seems to be the preservation of order, not the exercise of compassion or moral judgment. Migrants are to be categorized, processed, and dealt with according to policy, as a means of keeping them invisible from the populace, for whom they function as, at best, an annoyance and, at worst, a threat. As Richard comes to know the individual migrants, his recognition of the inadequacy and inhumanity of this approach motivates him to take action, to assert his rights as a sovereign subject in opposition to the impersonality of the state.
Sabine Zimmermann It’s important to remember, though, that Richard’s stage in life as a professor emeritus only provides a frame for the actual story. Erpenbeck ensures that his situation functions as a lens through which to view the many different detailed narratives of the African migrants. For example, by contrasting Richard with young Awad, who was born in Ghana, the text illustrates the effects of not being born into privilege. As a young child, Awad moved from Ghana to Libya with his father. He trained as a car mechanic, and father and son enjoyed a stable life in Libya, until rebel forces killed his father. Awad was forced, along with thousands of others, to leave Africa on a boat headed to Europe. Clearly Awad is a victim of war, but since the war in question did not take place in his birth country Ghana, Europe is not willing to resettle him. The rigidity of Germany’s assessment process is exposed when Richard calls Awad’s lawyer to ask about the status of his case. The lawyer explains that Awad was born in “a safe country,” and since he came to Germany via Italy, he has no chance of filing a successful asylum claim in Germany (170). Like most of the other African men in the novel, Awad must leave Germany and return to Italy, where he will likely not be offered permanent resettlement either.
In contrast to Awad, Richard was born in the “right place”—in Silesia, once a province of Prussia, part of the German Empire, and then the Weimar Republic. Even though Richard’s family was displaced by the war when he was still an infant, he was “lucky” enough with regard to the geography of his birth. It is no coincidence that Richard spent most of his adult life in East Germany, which constitutionally viewed itself as a separate country from Germany for over four decades. But, as the novel’s title also signifies, this nation-state “came, went, and has gone.” Although East Germany as a separate nation disappeared from the atlas, Richard—unlike Awad—did not have to become a refugee. The narrator’s voice curtly states that the protagonist simply became a citizen of another country: “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, from one day to the next, though the view from the window remained the same” (81). Richard did not actually cross a border, instead the border “crossed him”, and he was lucky, due to the geography of his birth place, to encounter a polity willing to offer him legal status immediately.
Chunjie Zhang Yes, the question of narrative agency is crucial in the discussion about refugees. A review of the Iraqi-German writer Abbas Khider’s novel A Slap In the Face (2016), which appeared in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, laments that Erpenbeck’s novel has been celebrated everywhere as a novel about the migration crisis, even though it focuses predominantly on the German professor emeritus Richard (Encke 2016). In Khider’s novel, an Iraqi refugee is the protagonist and he and his refugee friends have the primary voice. People who already empathize with and are well informed about the refugees would consider the choice to have a refugee as protagonist more appropriate.
At the same time, I also see the benefits of having an educated German professor as protagonist, especially when he undergoes a process of changing his prejudices and comes to see the refugees in a new light. Erpenbeck’s narrative strategy might have a powerful impact on the average German reader, since university professors are highly respected in German society. If this retired professor could change after learning about the life stories of the African refugees and the colonial history, then, one hopes, ordinary German readers might also change their views toward the refugees and accept them with more generosity and understanding. If the professor makes effort to compensate for Europe’s colonial past by buying a piece of land in Africa for the family of his refugee friend Karon, then readers could imitate his good actions. Seeing the situation through Richard’s eyes, readers could more easily identify with the narrative voice and empathize with the refugees. This also reflects Erpenbeck’s own relationship to the refugees. She might not be able to tell stories from the perspective of a refugee because she does not have the direct experience of being a refugee that Khider did.
I understand the criticism of Erpenbeck’s choice of protagonist. But I also recognize Erpenbeck’s pedagogical intention of relating the refugees to colonial history, East German history, and contemporary German society. When I recently gave a talk about Khider’s novel A Slap In the Face at a German university, some audience members had difficulty identifying with the protagonist, the Iraqi refugee. They even imposed their prejudices toward the Islam on the protagonist and made shockingly dismissive and exclusionist comments. In this respect, Erpenbeck’s novel may be more accessible for ordinary German readers, as its popularity already indicates.
Sabine Zimmermann Since the novel covers so many aspects of refugee life and is so relevant to contemporary debates about refugees, I’d be curious what specific passages from the novel best exemplify the intellectual work that you believe Erpenbeck’s novel is doing in the area you’re interested in?
Julie K. Allen For me, it is the scene when Richard decides to study the agreement that the Berlin Senate reached with the protesters on Oranienplatz, according to which the asylum seekers agreed to permanently dismantle their encampment in exchange for an assurance that their applications for asylum would be considered “in accordance with all applicable laws.” Reading this short agreement, less than three-quarters of page, Richard is struck by the disparity between the ephemerality of the state’s offer and the existential nature of the refugees’ requests, in which “eternity is being exchanged … for a finite length of time. An actual and permanent subtraction of tents and demonstrations from an actual place in exchange for a vague notion of hope: aid and assistance in pursuing vocational opportunities” (103). He reflects on the limits of policy to address fundamental human needs, rather than practical and legal ones:
In truth, what the refugees want from the Senate isn’t a four-person room, a shower with individual stalls, or a bus stop just a short walk from the facility where they’re housed. What they want is to be allowed to look for work, to organize their lives like any other person of sound body and mind. But the inhabitants of this territory—which has only been called Germany for around 150 years—are defending their borders with articles of law, they assail these newcomers with their secret weapon called time, poking out their eyes with days and weeks, crushing them with months. (81)
In acknowledging the relative youth of the German state, Richard realizes that the agreement to extend temporarily the refugees’ legal residence in Germany and consider their applications for asylum is simply a smokescreen. It allows the German government to claim the moral high ground of having taken the men’s claims seriously while taking legal shelter behind EU policies, in particular the Dublin II regulation that asylum seekers are only entitled to apply for asylum in the EU country where they first landed. Within a year of the agreement being signed, the men’s claims are all denied, on the basis of Dublin II, with the Berlin Senate announcing that “the legal responsibility for the men who landed in Italy is borne by Italy alone” (265), regardless of the fact that Italy cannot offer them employment or integration.
Chunjie Zhang I think that the scene when Richard starts to research European colonial history is crucial, because it helps him understand that the current relationship between Europe and Africa grows out of ruthless colonial exploitation and slavery. In Richard’s living room, the narrator tells us, he still has a globe on which Zambia is labeled “German East Africa,” where a German trader named Lüderitz appropriated a huge piece of land in unequal exchange for some weapons. Looking at this map, Richard realizes for the first time in his life that the borders in Africa are straight lines that indicate the division of European colonies. He also discovers that European economic exploitation of Africa is still ongoing. For example, a French electricity company controls the uranium mine in the Republic of Niger. While uranium flows to Europe, the soil is contaminated through mining, which causes cancer among the local people and their camels. Hence European countries should recognize their historical and present responsibilities for the African refugees who have lost their home. In short, as a colleague of mine once aptly summarized, they are here because you were there. From this perspective, mere empathy toward the refugees is not enough. The recognition of the deep connections between Europeans and the African refugees is necessary.
Sabine Zimmermann Erpenbeck recurrently employs the motif of the law as an embodied monster in order to underscore that there is a crucial correlation between laws and invisible borders. It is human design that develops laws, which then set up such invisible borders. Those borders do not simply spring up on their own. By enforcing laws, the construct of illegality is supported, which in turn maintains the differences between citizens and survival migrants. The text portrays the law as a sleeping behemoth, which regularly rises up “with a loud creaking of joints” (182) when those affected dare to question their treatment. When Awad and the other African men are told that they cannot stay together in Berlin while their cases are still being decided, the law-monster reacts and “opens its mouth up terrifyingly wide and laughs without making a sound. After it’s laughed its sinister laugh long enough – in other words after due consideration of all the contingencies – the iron law, the German law, speaks” (183). This passage illustrates that even though Germany is officially following key norms of the modern refugee regime – such as pledging support for multilateral cooperation and adhering to refugee protection in international law – by dispersing the group of rejected asylum-seekers from their shelter before sending them back to Italy, Germany actually does not offer more than rhetorical support for most asylum seekers. Rashid, one of the African men, learns directly that the ‘law monster’ does not care about individual fates, as he has made three unsuccessful attempts to make an appointment with the Berlin Senator in order to discuss the planned eviction. While Richard listens to Rashid, he cynically reflects about Germany’s current laws and concludes that “[t]he practical thing about a law is that no one person made it, so no one is personally responsible for it” (218). The novel thus exposes that once the “dynamics of the stigma” concerning “illegal migrants” come into play, postmigrant societies find it acceptable to ‘hide’ behind laws and bureaucracy.
Julie K. Allen So what do you think readers take away from this novel that can inform their own choices? For Richard, the state’s assertion of the EU’s supranational sovereignty to make this decision about the migrants’ lives, to disregard their individual stories and needs in favor of an anonymous one-size-fits-all policy, is what drives him to assert his own agency as a sovereign subject and do what he can to help. He accompanies various of his new friends to appointments—with a dentist, a lawyer, a social worker, etc.–and experiences first-hand the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare in which they find themselves entangled. He hopes that, under the clause known as section 23 that allows a country, government, or mayor to disregard EU regulations and simply accept a person applying for asylum, “even in a country that according to the laws governing requests for asylum, is not in fact responsible,” some of the refugees might be granted an “exceptional leave to remain,” but that hope proves to be false. The lawyer explains the difficulty of relying on state sovereignty to determine moral questions:
The more highly developed a society is, the more its written laws come to replace common sense. In Germany, I estimate that only two-thirds of our laws are still anchored in the emotional lives of the people, as it were. The other third are laws pure and simple, formulated with such a high level of precision and abstraction that all basis in human emotion has become superfluous and thus ceases to exist. (250)
Richard ultimately decides that the disconnect between the state, with its impersonal laws and policies, and the suffering and humanity of the men he has come to know, is unacceptable. He recognizes not only that it is a matter of choice to accept the state’s right to make such decisions but that many of his fellow citizens are happy to abdicate their responsibility to the state. “What’s the point of having a law like Dublin II to determine jurisdiction if we don’t abide by it? They say, we’re allowed to invoke section 23 at our discretion, but since we have the choice whether or not to do so, we choose not to” (269). Using policy as a shield, people avoid engaging the underlying ethical questions about the refugees’ rights as human beings. By contrast, Richard’s decision to house twelve refugees in his home and to arrange for his friends to take in a dozen more isn’t a long-term solution and doesn’t change the men’s legally precarious status, but it reflects Richard’s changed relationship to the state and his rejection of its claim to complete sovereignty in this matter.
More than simply telling the story of Richard’s internal transformation, Erpenbeck’s novel takes aim at the reader’s own conscience. By describing how the migrant flow intersects with larger global trends of colonial exploitation, resource extraction, political destabilization, and armed conflict, Erpenbeck vividly illustrates the “fluidities of non-centralised productions of power” that Ní Mhurchú identified as one of the primary limitations on state sovereignty. Richard sees how these trends have shaped his own life, as a young war refugee and an East German, and how the men’s situations are impacted by factors outside state control. Whether or not readers have had the chance to interact face-to-face with migrants as Richard does, sharing his experiences through the novel creates an empathic link between them and the idea of displaced persons. In recognizing their shared humanity with migrants and the inability of punitive policies to resolve the existential challenges underlying global migration, readers are empowered to demand more of both their elected leaders and of themselves.
Chunjie Zhang By the end of the novel, Richard and some of his friends begin to make an effort to help the refugees in their everyday lives, by accompanying them to appointments, explaining legal and administrative regulations to them, helping them with shopping, playing music with them, offering them jobs, or opening their own homes as accommodations. Richard even purchases a piece of land in Ghana for the family of Karon. Richard’s gesture contrasts with the colonial exploitation of land in Africa by the German trader Lüderitz. Richard’s humanitarian behavior may be naïve and of little effect, but this type of generosity could become more impactful if more and more people would join the league.
Richard’s development from a complacent bourgeois resident of Berlin to a generous and conscious global citizen could be exemplary for many other people in Germany and beyond. It is important to support such grassroots initiatives that can gradually change the political discourse and change the law. Earlier this year, the newly elected president of the European Union and the former German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, declared that she would support the reform of Dublin III, which only allows refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in. Dublin III conveniently and disingenuously reduces the responsibilities of the countries such as Germany or Austria that don’t have coastlines of the Mediterranean, where most refugees have been arriving. Italy, Spain, and Greece have to deal with the refugees to the largest extent. This unfair agreement has been critiqued for a long time from below. Von der Leyen told the press that she never understood this law. Now the EU could finally change it and bring more justice to the entire situation. This is the impact of grassroots activities and critiques.
Sabine Zimmermann In essence, Richard has come to understand what political scientist Joseph Carens (2010) contends: Most unauthorized migrants “would have no possibility of getting in through any authorized channel. To say that they should stand in a line which does not exist or does not move is disingenuous” (42). Particularly through Richard’s numerous cynical reflections, the novel indirectly questions whether receiving states like Germany bear any moral responsibility for never-ending refugee journeys, rather than merely a causal responsibility. The novel’s blunt message has to be repeated until it is finally heard: the narratives of those who—and those who do not—arrive in “postmigrant societies” without legal status, confirm that the gap between privileged and non-privileged migration is almost impossible to bridge. Yet, Western liberal states cannot remain passive; survival migration is a complex issue that has to be addressed from various societal and political angles.
Through careful sketches of individual survival migrants’ narratives that were inspired by her interviews with actual migrants, the author illustrates the never-ending journey within migration landscapes located in Europe. Those landscapes are filled with invisible borders that are more than just a literary theme but rather a dark reality for countless survival migrants who seem to be expelled from humanity because there is no polity interested in becoming an advocate for them. Erpenbeck’s focus on the motif of borders and limits reveals that it is human design and not just strange coincidences which determine the real opportunities for those who have to flee from untenable situations.
Julie K. Allen is the Donald R. and Jean S. Marshall Professor of Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her research focuses on cultural identity construction in north-central Europe, looking at how various forms of media, from literature to film, shape ideas of belonging, particularly with regard to migrant populations. She has explored these questions in her monographs Icons of Danish Modernity: Georg Brandes & Asta Nielsen (Washington UP 2012) and Danish but Not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Cultural Identity (University of Utah Press 2017), as well as in various articles.
Chunjie Zhang is associate professor of German at the University of California, Davis. Her monograph Transculturality and German Discourse in the Age of European Colonialism (Northwestern UP 2017) demonstrates non-European impact on German travel writing, literature, and philosophy in the eighteenth century. She is also the editor of Composing Modernist Connections in China and Europe (Routledge 2018), which aims to put Chinese and European modernisms on equal footing and make new connections. She has also written on Goethe, world literature, the radical Enlightenment, representations of China in Europe, and the refugee crisis.
Sabine Zimmermann is a PhD candidate in the Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Her research focuses on ethics of migration, political philosophy related to migration issues, and postmigration literature in general. She volunteers with private refugee sponsorship organizations in Vancouver’s lower mainland.
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Published on October 29, 2019.