Ankita Chakraborty | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,522 words)
Refugees, or displaced migrants, are most visible in the places where they are most vulnerable: on the high seas while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, or on TV next to a rolling clip of a nationalist insulting them. In war zones, so that they are shielded from airstrikes, they are made visible by the color of their camps — a uniform white, the same color as that of a doctor’s coat or that of a shroud. In places where they are relatively safe, they are difficult to come by. Refuge makes the refugee invisible. It is unlikely that you will meet a refugee on your way to work; on the off chance you do, they remind you that at this moment there is a war going on in some part of the world, and of your own complicity in that war. For instance, in Delhi, if I come across a Rohingya refugee, I might be reminded that India is, in fact, an ally of Myanmar. In London, in Paris, in Berlin, in New York, meeting a Yemeni refugee, one might be reminded of how long one’s respective country has been selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is in the best interest of the state that the refugee be kept at a distance from the citizen. It is, as the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck writes, “a matter of…sparing the Land of Poets the indignity of being dubbed the Land of killers once more.”
Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Go, Went, Gone begins with the mention of a drowning incident in a lake near the protagonist’s home in Berlin. An unknown man had drowned while swimming; he waved his arm for help, but no one saved him. His body at the bottom of the lake, an allegory for the several thousand migrants who have drowned trying to cross the sea, works as a trigger throughout the rest of the novel, which unfolds in close proximity to his place of death — very much like the story of Europe in the past century. (In Europe, they have for some time been trying to track down where all the bodies are buried.) At one point in the novel, Richard, the protagonist, a professor emeritus, talks to an 18 year-old African refugee about Hitler, a former resident of Berlin. “Did you ever hear the name Hitler?” he asks.
Hitler. He started the war and killed all the Jewish people.
He killed people?
Yes, he killed people — but only a few, Richard says quickly, because he’s already feeling bad about getting carried away almost to the point of telling this boy, who’s just fled the slaughter in Libya, about slaughter that happened here.
The German, in his mind, always goes there. Not through lazy rhetoric or to make simplistic comparisons between a current unpopular politician and Hitler but in sincere, sorrowful contemplation. What a burden Hitler is! How does one explain him to refugees fleeing to Germany? Ordinary citizens having to deal with this burden is what half of German literature in the last century is all about. The present struggle is also one of consciousness; Erpenbeck is clear about that from the start. We have to carry these refugees in our minds for as long as it takes until the state carries them within its ambit.
The World War II-era nostalgia that flourishes in films, TV and in certain genres of the publishing industry would have us believe that things are moving in the same direction again. But circumstances cannot be compared; no two tragedies are the same. Erpenbeck wants us to remember the dead migrants at the bottom of the sea. But how can we? The “refugee story,” like the story in Go, Went, Gone, is the story of those who have survived, not those who have perished.
When you arrive in Germany, you are someone carrying a document called a fiktionsbescheinigung, a “fictional certificate” or “certificate of fiction,” which is required to obtain a residence permit, which, in turn, is required to apply for asylum. The residence permit is only temporary. As soon as it expires you are back to holding in your hands a document certifying you as fiction. Legally, this “fiction” accords you an assumption, but not proof, of existence. A “certificate of fiction” is also issued to citizens of countries such as the U.S., Japan or Israel on arrival in Germany, but only to help them avoid the paperwork required for a visa. In the hands of a displaced migrant, however, the document becomes a curious choice of words. It is both appropriate in describing their state of limbo and insolent in acknowledging what politicians already say about them: They are not real. It matters what you call something.
At first, Richard doesn’t notice the refugees in Berlin except when they’re on TV. Richard belongs to the generation of postwar children who grew up in a completely destroyed Germany. But to the rest of us, he belongs to a demography that has been known to support and put in power populist leaders across the world. They have voted for Donald Trump in America, Narendra Modi in India and voted Leave during Brexit. However, unlike them, here is someone who acts his age. Richard is wise, sensible and accountable. He seeks the refugees out in Berlin for conversation and for company. The state keeps on isolating and distancing the refugees from the city and, thus, from visibility, and Richard keeps chasing them from one place to another in order to see them again. What he offers them is not money or charity but an old man interested in listening to their stories. It is extraordinary how far listening can go to reassure people.
The point is to distance refugees from their legally-bound listeners, protecting the listeners from being moved by those stories.
When a refugee flees to another country and claims asylum, she is, in effect, petitioning the state to listen to her story. The state provides the refugee with lawyers, asylum officers and immigration judges who, each in their own capacity, have to just listen. According to the 1967 Protocol of the Refugee Convention, the refugee has every right to tell her story to the state and the state is legally bound to listen to it. Listening to a story might also expose the state to the possibility of a change of mind and even a favorable decision for the refugee. It is for this reason, in a clever evasion of legal responsibility, that countries like France, Italy and the United Kingdom now surveil the seas, intercepting migrant boats en route and returning them to where they came from before they’ve even arrived; or why Donald Trump last December put a ban on asylum seekers from entering the country and has since then been keeping them detained in Mexico; or why he has recently attempted to ban Central American children from applying as refugees when they are already in the U.S., advising them to instead apply from where they live, through a process that does not exist. The point is to distance refugees from their legally-bound listeners, protecting the listeners from being moved by those stories. Soon countries without a Mediterranean coastline may be able to purchase the right to not listen to the stories of the arriving refugees, a situation which arguably the Dublin Regulation, a law which requires asylum seekers to be processed in the first EU country they enter, has already facilitated. Or the EU may, like the United States, continue to pay off other countries, like Turkey, to keep refugees and their stories away.
Where the state has failed to meet its moral obligation to listen, writers like Jenny Erpenbeck have stepped in. “Can you tell me how you lived?” Richard asks a refugee he nicknames Apollo. The book is full of such questions. When Richard first meets Apollo, he finds him studying German. A list of irregular verbs is hanging behind him on the wall. Gehen, Ging, Gegangen; Go, Went, Gone. (The scene is revealing; refugees begin their assimilation and integration into another culture long before they are granted any legal status, as if cramming German grammar were the prescription for PTSD.) Richard wants to imagine Apollo’s past life in some other part of the world in order to make sense of his present in Germany. He wants to understand how a person transitions from a citizen there to a refugee here. In response to Richard’s question, Apollo takes out his phone and shows Richard a picture of his former home. The reader can sense a genuine, almost childlike, interest on Richard’s part to know about the world, about people who don’t look like him. In any other book, the white European male wanting to know more about the boy from the desert in Africa would have already left Europe for Africa. But not Richard. His efforts are so short-distanced, yet his quest so rare. Go, Went, Gone is a teaching-moment in telling diverse stories: Where one’s imagination fails, seek information. Ask questions. How have you lived?
The refugees are eternally waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Richard comes to them with common misgivings that people have about refugees. “The refugees aren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?” “What’s a refugee doing with a laptop?” Meanwhile, they are not allowed to look for jobs by the Berlin Senate. Richard accompanies them to German instruction lessons, to lawyer appointments, or to police summons. And preps them for interviews with asylum officers. “…Back in your country, Niger, you belonged to a persecuted minority — say that when you have your interview,” he tells Apollo. “I will tell my story just as it was,” Apollo replies. He invites them home — for dinner, to play the piano, or just to read a book. He is like an earnest schoolteacher, adamant in his influence; he wants them to have experiences in the city other than just sitting around at a residential facility and waiting to hear back on their applications. “When doing nothing gets to be too much for them, we organize a demonstration.” Richard goes to the demonstration worried about another refugee, Rashid, who is the loudest in his criticism of the West’s betrayals. “Whatever you do, Rashid, don’t start talking about God…Otherwise they’ll think you’re a terrorist,” he says.
Erpenbeck is a keeper of our conscience, who plagues us with questions like ‘What do you know?’ and ‘How do you live with it?’
Does Richard do all that, be there for the refugees like that, out of guilt or out of a sense of responsibility? (If guilt is the reason why he’s doing what he’s doing, why Germany has taken far more refugees than any other country in Europe, then the question to ask is—why is guilt not a more common feeling in the European Union?) Richard is not interested in seeking absolution but in forging a community where refugees and citizens are dependent on each other. He wants to bridge the long distance between citizens and refugees. He is, in this sense, anti-state, or at least state-agnostic. Because he is a postwar child, he understands that citizen and refugee are denominations that are easily reversible. In his lifetime he has been the citizen of so many different republics, all while living in the same Berlin. History is too often understood with respect to a place but not its people, whose experiences of triumph or trauma are often untethered from a country’s victories and defeats. Now, it seems like the only concern is to defend Europe’s present against its past, peacetime against wartime — but all to what end?
“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believe we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace—so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world—inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, the only child of an academic and an Arabic translator, who, like Richard were postwar children. She studied theater and musical production in university and made her debut in the year 1999 with her collection of stories The Old Child. Popular for her novels Visitation and The End of Days, all translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, she is one of the best known writers in German and the recipient of several of Germany’s top literary prizes. Erpenbeck’s language in Go, Went, Gone is simple but the effect it has is overwhelming. Time slows down as the refugees struggle for dignity in Europe every day. She fills our mind and senses with their condition. In her novels, knowledge of history often seems to have life-altering consequences. Therefore, one often finds characters in them who feel the need to protect posterity from the bloody parts of history. They either lie to each other about history or gloss over it. It is out of this impulse that Richard lied about Hitler to the young refugee. And it is known to us what his late mother told him once about concentration camps — that she hadn’t known about them. Well, she might have told him the truth — a lot of Europeans claimed not to know about the camps until it was too late — but I don’t think Richard ever believed her.
Unlike Richard’s mother we now live in the age of abundant information, so we can no longer claim innocence from it. Erpenbeck is a keeper of our conscience, who plagues us with questions like What do you know? and How do you live with it? The burden of knowledge is easily transferable from Europe to elsewhere because something similar, if not worse, is happening to refugees in other parts of the world, including the U.S., Australia, and India. In fact, India has become so hostile a country to Muslim refugees and immigrants that the Rohingya who once fled to India escaping genocide in Myanmar, now in fear that they might be arrested and sent to detention camps, are fleeing India for Bangladesh. Thirteen hundred Rohingya refugees fled the country in the first two weeks of 2019.
In Go, Went, Gone what seems to ultimately defeat the human spirit is not the wars of Assad, or Boko Haram, but the bureaucracy of host countries. This is a well-deserved indictment. In the world’s “safe” countries, there is still no stigma against deportation. When talking about refugees, we have been so focused on the number of them moving in, that it is appalling how little we talk about who is being sent back. Go, Went, Gone refuses to look away, or to compartmentalize. Nowhere in Erpenbeck’s novel is the presence of refugees in Europe called a “crisis” or a “problem”; the book does not indulge in the language of propaganda. That is its triumph. Erpenbeck lifts the curtain of fear, reminding us of what we already know: that this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.
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Ankita Chakraborty is a writer based in New Delhi. She has also written for The Caravan, and Outlook.
Editor: Dana Snitzky