Sunday, November 20, 2022

Writing migration

Helping us to reflect on our particular position in the wider sweep of social and cultural life is something that literature does well. I don't mean that all literature does or indeed should do that, but it is often the case. It was a pre-occupation of nineteenth century novelists, who often constructed dynamic localised narratives against the backdrop of social and political change. The parochial or provincial drama played out on a larger canvas. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is subtitled 'provincial lives'; Eliot's Middlemarch  'a study of provincial life'. Nowadays it doesn't get spelt out in the same way. Go, Went, Gone could be about anything, from the title, but what you get it is a chilling blast of what it might be like to be an illegal migrant in modern day Europe. Jenny Erpenbeck's novel centres on a recently retired professor and his encounters with a group of African migrants in Berlin. Pause for thought. What is it with these recently retired professor types? Is there an offer on at the Writers'R'Us character warehouse? I'd only just recently retired the recently retired professor in Orkney for heaven's sake! They're full of ideas, and good intentions, not quite sure what to do with themselves, well-read and disturbingly adrift in their cardigans. Do they themselves represent something - tell us something about ourselves, our comfortable, rational, cloistered, male ineffectiveness, perhaps? In stark contrast the migrants in Erpenbeck have each in their own way become ambiguous, hurt or in some sense erased. They live in limbo. When Erpenbeck isn't being pedagogical - feeding us snippets about sub-Saharan politics, religion, culture and conflict, she's being rather clever. The retired professor is a character formed in pre-unification Germany and this adds depth. So here, identity, nationality, and the effects of political extremism create a shadowy backdrop to the story. What's clever, is that Erpenbeck doesn't have to tell us all this, she just gestures towards it. She doesn't need to tell us because we know it. We are her readers, after all, not the migrants that she writes about. And this is the problematic bit of Go, Went, Gone - even as she is helping us to empathise with the lives, the stories and the hardships of the migrants she is objectifying them, she is othering them, at just the point at which she's trying not to. I think this is partly a structural problem. She zooms in on the main characters one by one and gives each their individual story. It's almost as if she had found a similar group of migrants and interviewed them. You end up with something like a collection of pen portraits. But Erpenbeck is too sophisticated a writer to hang her story on this alone. Richard, that's the name of our retired professor - the same as the retired professor in Orkney, unfortunately - Richard has his own story, his own suffering, and this is partially resolved towards the end of the novel in a way that the plight of the migrants isn't - and thank goodness, because that's true to life. There's also a clever metaphor at work throughout the novel - something about surfaces, and what's beneath the surface. A quote at the beginning informs us that 'surfaces were invented by the devil'. The novel ends with Richard saying 'the things I can endure are only just the surface of what I can't possibly endure'. But what exactly is it about surfaces, when staying on the surface seems so vital in some of the dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean that Erpenbeck also writes about? Go, Went, Gone will stay with me because it's a story about nationality and migration in contemporary Europe, and it's a story that should be told more often.