Earlier this summer, my family spent a week in an Italian village near Menton, just over the border that Italy shares with southern France. Dry hills, the azure Mediterranean, scents of rosemary and lavender, a lemon tree in the garden. Well, lucky us. Daily, we crossed the border into France and back again into Italy. We didn’t have to stop, and the listless border guards barely glanced at our respectable little hired car, with its four white occupants. They were a good deal more interested in the African migrants, who gathered with persistent hopelessness on the Italian side of the border, just a few feet from the guard post. We saw the young men everywhere in that Italian hinterland—usually in groups of two or three, walking along the road, climbing the hills, sitting on a wall. They were tall, dark-skinned, conspicuous because they were wearing too many clothes for the warm Riviera weather. We learned that they had made their way to Italy from various African countries and were now desperate to get into France, either to stay there or to push on farther, to Britain and Germany. “You might see them in the hills,” the genial woman who gave us the key to our house said. “Nothing to be alarmed about. There have been no problems—yet.” Near that house, there was a makeshift sign, in Arabic and English: “Migrants, please do not throw your garbage into the nature. Use the plastic bags you see on the private road.”
I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that, as Edward VIII famously said of mass unemployment in the nineteen-thirties, “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence. We see suffering only intermittently, and our days make safe spaces for these interruptions.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent novel “Go, Went, Gone” (New Directions, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky) is about “the central moral question of our time,” and among its many virtues is that it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling “moving” stories about people who are very different from us. Erpenbeck writes about Richard, a retired German academic, whose privileged, orderly life is transformed by his growing involvement in the lives of a number of African refugees—utterly powerless, unaccommodated men, who have ended up, via the most arduous routes, in wealthy Germany. The risks inherent in making fiction out of the encounter between privileged Europeans and powerless dark-skinned non-Europeans are immense: earnestness without rigor, the mere confirmation of the right kind of political “concern,” sentimental didacticism. A journey of transformation, in which the white European is spiritually renewed, almost at the expense of his darkly exotic subjects, is familiar enough from German Romanticism; you can imagine a contemporary version, in which the novelist traffics in the most supple kind of self-protective self-criticism. “Go, Went, Gone” is not that kind of book.
Erpenbeck, who was born in East Berlin in 1967, is an original writer. In a novelistic tradition still largely dedicated to the treatment of domestic interiority, she does nothing less than attempt readings of the domestic interiority of history. Her novel “Visitation” (2010) told the history of twentieth-century Germany through the lives of the successive inhabitants of a Brandenburg property, rather in the way that Virginia Woolf refracts the First World War through a history of the Ramsays’ home, in the “Time Passes” section of “To the Lighthouse.” Erpenbeck’s previous book, “The End of Days” (2014), again recounted twentieth-century history, this time through the long life of a woman who could have inhabited most of its tormented decades—from birth in Galicia at the turn of the twentieth century to a period in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties, ending her days as a nonagenarian in a newly unified Berlin. (I say “could,” because Erpenbeck repeatedly kills off and resurrects her heroine, offering each new phase of her life as a historical hypothetical.)
In “Visitation,” the only character who does not leave, because he does not inhabit the house but tends it, is the gardener. As people are displaced, empires demolished, and walls erected, the gardener goes about his task of orderly renewal—the unfinished business of imposing clarity on unkempt space. The gardener sees everything lucidly, often with powerful emotion, but from a slight distance. It is a fair image of how Jenny Erpenbeck works. The reader learns to approach her fiction, especially in its early pages, with the same patience she herself exhibits. Her narratives are rigorous, partial to the present tense, and untempted by the small change of contemporary realism (abundant and superfluous dialogue in quotation marks, sharply individuated characters, tellingly selected detail). Her task is comprehension rather than replication, and she uses a measured, lyrically austere prose, whose even tread barely betrays the considerable passion that drives it onward. (Susan Bernofsky deserves immense credit for bringing this prose to us in English.) Among contemporary Anglophone writers, this classical restraint calls to mind J. M. Coetzee, the V. S. Naipaul of “The Enigma of Arrival,” and Teju Cole’s Naipaul-influenced “Open City.”