Tr. by Susan Bernofsky
According to the UNHCR mid-year report, in 2016 sixty-five million people became refugees. Sixty-five million people were forced against their will to leave their countries due to wars and famines. Sixty-five million. Never before in history has the number been so high. But how do I — one — who stares at this number on a flat computer screen, relate to this fact? One can’t picture the number. I can’t comprehend the number. The number “sixty-five million” doesn’t directly speak to my heart or my guts. And what doesn’t touch my heart or my guts won’t become something I will care about. And if I don’t care about it, I won’t take action. And if I don’t take action, certain processes, even the most devastating ones, will take their course, not because they were meant to take this course, but simply because nobody changed their direction or stopped them.
The first time tears emerged during my reading of Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, was at the end of the book on one of the last pages when she describes, almost in list form, how 147 of 476 of African refugees who were about to be forced against their will to leave Berlin found a temporary place to sleep in the homes, shops or summer sheds of German citizens who had been moved enough by the inhuman aspects of the “ironclad laws” to temporarily push a few pieces of furniture aside and make some space.
Four men can sleep here now on the burgundy-colored Persian rug. In the music room, one man can sleep under the piano, and another to the side of it: that’s two more spots. (Richard found two air mattresses in the shed, and for the other men he’s piled several layers of blankets on the floor.) Two men can fit at right angles to each other on the living room sofa, one more on two upholstered chairs pushed together. Richard has Apollo and Ithemba help him carry his wife’s half of the bed from the bedroom to the guest room, which now sleeps three.
Detlef and Sylvia say that the guest house in their garden has a small wood stove, so if the men don’t mind having to keep the fire going . . . The three pool players don’t mind in the least.
Detlef ’s ex-wife, the one with the tea shop in Potsdam, says: The shop isn’t open at night, so it doesn’t matter to me if there’s someone sleeping in the back room. He just can’t go in and out all the time during the day. Her husband says: But then you risk losing your business. There was a time, Detlef ’s ex-wife says, when you could get the death sentence for hiding people. You have a point there, her husband says. So Hermes, of the golden shoes, moves into the tea shop in Potsdam.
The list goes on. To tear up when facing these sorts of enumerations might be a specifically German thing, especially when those lists account for people — deported, exterminated, hidden or saved; when those lists reveal birthdays, heights, weights, passport numbers of classified humans; when those lists lead to consequences; when those lists reach historic dimensions; when those lists show with mathematical clarity that a system that uses and relies on lists and numbers never can account for lives, but only for bodies — dead or alive.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s book talks a lot about bodies, bodies with black skin and bodies with white skin, bodies with visible and invisible scars, bodies with a place to be and bodies in a vacuum, bodies with supposedly little time left and bodies with supposedly too much time, bodies in limbo outside of time, bodies with a history and bodies without a future. How the being of those bodies is shaped by something as abstract as “the law,” specifically the law that regards individuals fleeing brutal wars in Libya, Sudan, Niger, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, and Burkina Faso is what Richard, the protagonist of this fictional story based on real events, tries to understand.
The European law that in 2015 is in charge of the stranded bodies who survived crossing the Mediterranean Sea, also referred to as “unauthorized entrants to the EU,” is called Dublin II. It determines the EU Member State responsible to examine an application for asylum seekers seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention. The Dublin Regulation aims to determine rapidly the Member State responsible for the asylum claim and provides for the transfer of an asylum seeker to that Member State. Usually, the responsible Member State will be the state through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU. Dublin II is obviously something different than a moral law, the law of supply and demand, or the law of nature.
“Life is crazy. Life is crazy,” especially for people like Osarobo, who saw his friends die in Lybia. “The ironclad law is aware of all of this.”
If the law has an awareness of itself, will it — like everything that has an awareness of itself — fight for its own survival first? Will the first rule of the law be to do everything in its power to maintain the law? Does it have the power to separate itself from the humans who birthed it? Will such thinking lead us to speculate that Dublin II follows a natural trajectory?
“The practical thing about a law is that no one person made it, so no one is personally responsible for it,” thinks Richard when Rashid tells him about his three failed attempts to speak with the actual Senator of the Interior “man to man” to find a solution for the refugees.
We eat paper, he [the lawyer] says again, barely able to suppress his laughter. Paper! he sputters, the Germans eat paper! He now has tears of laughter in his eyes.
His papers have proven that Ithemba’s chances for being able to stay in Germany are non-existent. His lawyer, who reminds Richard of an owl, says:
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.
A nation state is a sovereign state whose citizens are relatively homogenous in factors such as language, culture, ethnicity or common descent. Germany is a nation state and Go, Went, Gone takes place in its landlocked capital, Berlin, that does not share a body of water with Africa and therefore makes it impossible for refugee boats from there to ever land on its shores.
Richard understands: Dublin II allows all the European countries without a Mediterranean coastline to purchase the right not to have to listen to the stories of arriving refugees. In other words, so-called “asylum fraud” means one must tell a true story in a country where no one’s legally obligated to listen, much less do anything in response. And the soon-to-be-implemented fingerprint scanning system, he reads, will preclude all misunderstandings as to whether an individual belongs to a group that must be listened to or not.
From October 2012 until April 2014 a group of African refugees had occupied and then maintained a protest encampment in the Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg in Berlin. In an act of civil disobedience they lived in tents to protest Europe’s asylum policy. After the clearance of the camp, they staged several protests in public places of Berlin to draw attention to their desperate situation and “become visible.” They wanted to stay, wanted to work and be given a chance to start a new life in Germany. But Germany was not in charge. It’s really nothing personal, because Germany is not a person. When those men’s bodies touched the soil of the European Union for the first time, they did that in Italy. Hence, those men were Italy’s responsibility. Italy was in charge to fingerprint and identify them, the German Senate just had to get their bodies there alive, without the men killing themselves first out of desperation.
The fictional Richard, who is getting entangled into these real life events, is a man who was born in the last years of World War II and lives on the outskirts of Berlin without a wife, a mistress, pets, or children. He has recently retired from his professorial teaching position at the Humboldt University in the Department of Classical Philology. He becomes interested in the situation of the refugees. He visits them in their temporary home. And then he goes home and eats dinner and writes down some questions. Over the next couple of days he interviews them. And then he goes home, cuts an onion with a knife, and reads a book. He invites them for tea in a bakery. Then he goes home. He cooks for them, and then he goes to a birthday party of his friends. He introduces them to some of his friends, and then he goes home and smells the air in his garden. He gives them temporary paid jobs, and then he thinks about the drowned stranger in the lake in front of his house. Time moves on. He goes to the supermarket, which he still calls Kaufhalle because he has lived in the German Democratic Republic until that Republic was dissolved on October 3, 1990. The GDR disappeared, yet the word Kaufhalle has survived. Richard seems to be a practical man. He accompanies the foreigners on a trip to government agencies. He teaches Osarobo piano, lends Rufu Dante in Italian, and takes him to a dentist, takes 3000 Euros in cash out of his bank account and buys the family of Karon a piece of land in Ghana so his mother and siblings, for whom Karon is responsible, can sustain themselves. Richard does these things, Jenny Erpenbeck shows us, sometimes a little too obviously, because he shares a few essentials with the refugees.
Like them he has been put out of work. Like them he is isolated. Like them he has a lot of time, like each of them he is a single man with no family members around. Because he is East German he can relate to the challenges of being thrown from one day to the next into a well-oiled West German system and its bureaucracies. Like them he is curious to learn about the others, like them he has no or very little knowledge about the others’ culture and religion and is often perplexed about that which is foreign to him. And, in the lake in front of his house rots a dead man who drowned in the early summer during a swim. Drowned people also haunt the refugees. On Christmas eve, after Richard has lit the candles on the Christmas tree in his house, Rashid who fled with his two young children from Tripoli, talks about the approximately 550 people who drowned when a rescue boat came to help them. His two small children were among the dead.
For the first seven days the food and water we had on board was enough. There wasn’t much in any case, but finally we adults stopped eating and drinking and gave everything to the children.
Then the compass broke.
For three days we just went around not knowing our direction. The captain missed a few buoys at night and the boat scraped against rocks. The motor was kaput. Everyone was in a panic.
For two days the boat rocked crazily back and forth. We couldn’t steer it any longer. We didn’t know where to steer to. Five days total without anything to eat or drink. All of us were in very bad shape. Some people died. And the ones who were still alive had no strength left at all. I was so weak.
So weak. Everything looked blurry. But then suddenly the rescue boat arrived. There was a commotion. The people from the rescue boat wanted to help us, they threw us food and bottles of water, and everyone tried to catch something, but this made the boat start rocking. And then it tipped over. Just like that. From one moment to the next. It happened so fast. Within five minutes, not more, in only five minutes hundreds and hundreds of people were dead. The people I’d just been sitting next to, whom I’d just been talking with.
Is it even possible to compare Richard’s thoughts about the drowned stranger in the lake in front of his house with the trauma of some of the refugees? Isn’t that terribly perverted?
We get to know the men from Africa through their interactions with Richard, through Richard’s research in books, newspapers, and on the Internet, through the stories the men tell him, through Richard’s speculations. And that is sometimes painful and embarrassing, because Richard is neither a genius nor a saint. As his past shows he is not a moral hero. He had an affair with a young woman in a mini-skirt, his wife was an alcoholic, he encouraged her to have an abortion on a kitchen table. He felt ashamed of her, when blood was dripping out between her legs in the subway after the abortion. He was embarrassed. He made mistakes and he keeps making them, and more than once the eurocentric Ossi comes across as unbearably ignorant, terribly naïve, and self-centered in his white, male privilege that comes with a house and a pension and a huge nostalgic yearning for the good old East German times that were much less complicated. He reads Negerliteratur from 1951, he gives his new friends Greek or German names, because he can’t remember their African ones, he desires the breasts of the young, female, German language teacher who is originally from Ethiopia, and speculates that she, whose name he never bothers to learn, volunteers in the refugee home because she wants to sleep with black, African men. He constantly compares the real tragic stories of the some of the men with those of Greek or German classics of fiction: “Goethe’s Iphigenia, too, is present and absent, like an emigrant in Tauris, seeking the land of her childhood with her soul.”
Embarrassment is an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself, experienced when having a socially unacceptable act or condition witnessed or revealed to others. Or by others. Richard embarrasses me, because like him, I didn’t know that Africa consists of 54 countries.
What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger? Some of his first-year students had been unable to recite even the first four lines of the Odyssey in Greek. During his own studies, that would have been unthinkable. He gets up and takes out his atlas. The capital of Ghana is Accra, the capital of Sierra Leone is Freetown, the capital of Niger Niamey. Had he ever known the names of these cities? Burkina Faso is a country to the west of Niger. And Niger?
Go. Went. Gone. Richard keeps going, he keeps trying and stumbling forward into unknown territories — despite bureaucratic obstacles and the presence of the police, despite bitter disappointments that end some of relationships he had started to form with some of his new friends. He learns. He opens up, not only himself, but also the space around him. He lets people in. He cares. And that’s why in the end, he wins me over.
To speculate how much Richard’s actions help not only the refugees but also himself is one thing. To judge how much or little Richard’s actions help a few men in the face of the 65 million refugees might be the business of those afraid to embarrass themselves in front of others.
War destroys everything, Awad says: your family, your friends, the place where you lived, your work, your life. When you become foreign, Awad says, you don’t have a choice. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know anything. I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be. I don’t have a picture of myself anymore.
My father is dead, he says. And me — I don’t know who I am anymore. Becoming foreign. To yourself and others.
In her 1969 Manifesto about “Care” the artist Mierle Laderman Ukele starts off with IDEAS:
The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct: separation; individuality. Avant-Garde par excellence, to follow one’s own path to death — do your own thing; dynamic change.
The Life Instinct: unification; the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
At the end of this life Richard chooses to follow the Life Instinct. He chooses to maintain the species he is part of. And as he grows on his task, the strange presence of that drowned stranger in the lake in front of his house, which might mostly be his bad conscious, shrinks.
Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others. In the fall they will do a six months residency at the Hong Kong Baptist University.