Jenny Erpenbeck & Jennifer Egan

I’ve been reeling of late, as have we all, from the impact of the unspeakable man in the White House, the floods, acts of terrorism, and now these devastating fires raging in the North Bay. The cumulative effect seems to have trickled down into my “pleasure” reading. While I still like the odd mystery or British comedy of manners, I find myself drawn to writers dealing with more socially relevant ideas, e.g. Mohsin Hamid (Exit West) and Suzy Hansen (Notes on a Foreign Country).

Erpenbeck_goNow comes Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, whose subject matter is African refugees in Germany. Wow. As one who’s gotten somewhat involved in the immigration crisis here (a different kettle of fish to be sure, but with some common themes regarding displaced people, insanely punitive government policy, separation of families), this book really hit home.

The novel’s protagonist Richard, a retired academic, lived most of his life as a citizen of East Berlin, which is also where the author was born in 1967. That gives a specificity to his psychological profile and perception of current events; the reality of a united Germany is still somewhat puzzling to him. When he encounters a group of protesting refugees in in Berlin, then learns about refugees living in tents for the past year, his interest at first is scholarly: Who are these people? Where do they come from?

Where exactly is Burkina Faso? The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country, even though—as the article about this faux pas pointed out—there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?

And later, he begins to more closely examine their plight: “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”

And the refugees are equally ignorant of Europeans, having never heard of Hitler or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Richard’s involvement with the Africans becomes more intimate as he gets to know them and invites them into his home. They become individuals with families and histories and frustrations with the bureaucratic nightmare that keeps them form working and forces them to move from place to place.

Erpenbeck’s is skilled at taking us inside headlines that have dulled us to the point of intellectual compassion devoid of social responsibility and action. We’ve become, according to the critic James Wood, “moral flaneurs.”

As one of Richard’s former colleagues remarks: “One day it will be us having to flee.” Whatever makes that prediction a reality—be it persecution, terrorism, flood, or fire—history suggests it’s accurate. So what do we do now? That’s the question Go, Went, Gone demands.

The critics adore Jennifer Egan. I felt like the odd person out when I wasn’t ecstatic over her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her new novel, Manhattan Beach, has garnered widespread raves.

Egan_beachUndeniably Eagan is a gifted writer and tells a terrific story, here largely of New York City during WWII—the Manhattan piers and crime syndicate that runs the city. And there’s a strong female protagonist who represents the new role women took in society when the men went off to war. Her determination to find her missing father and solve the mystery of his disappearance is at the heart of the novel.

Yeah, it’s good. But great? Nah. I’d be curious what you think.