Reading Erpenbeck at Oranienplatz

A version of this post was originally written for the graduate seminar “Framing Migration,” taught by Prof. Deniz Göktürk of the UC Berkeley Department of German. In this post, seminar participant Lisa Friedrich discusses German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen, a German novel that deals with the refugee protest encampment at Berlin’s Oranienplatz (“Oplatz”). An earlier version of this post served as an introduction to Lisa’s seminar presentation on the Oplatz protests and refugee organizing in Berlin in relation to the book’s narrative. 

Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (“Go, went, gone”) was released in 2015 and shortlisted for the German Book Prize the same year. It was widely discussed in the German media and newspapers, not least because its subject reflected the prevailing zeitgeist in Germany and the discourses around refugees that had been set in motion by the refugee protest at “Oplatz” in Berlin.

Gehen, ging, gegangen tells the story of Richard, an emeritus professor, who lives in Berlin. The novel depicts a rupturous moment in Richard’s life, his retirement. Having had a meticulously structured life that circled mainly around his job and the university, Richard finds himself in a crisis, realizing that he is not needed anymore and unable to think of an occupation to kill the hours that are now at his disposition.

Here the novel seems to draw a parallel: Not far away from Richard’s home, namely at O(ranien)platz, refugees have set up a tent city in order to achieve visibility and to draw attention to their situation. Their life has also been profoundly ruptured: Forced into a situation of limbo, not knowing what their future in Germany will look like and when and if it begins, these people seem to be “fallen out of time” (as Richard describes it), unable to work or study, restricted in their freedom of movement.

A hunger strike at Alexanderplatz catches Richard’s attention. Realizing how little he knows about the refugee protest (and also looking for an occupation) he decides to meet with them and interview them about their lives. Mediated through Richard, the reader learns about these young men: Where they come from, why they had left their homes, how they deal with their precarious living conditions and the harassment they often face in Germany.

Richard begins to teach German to the refugees, gives them piano lessons, and finally also hosts some of them at his place. Drawn to each other because of certain structural parallels in their living situations, in the passage we are reading for class, Richard’s first visit, the clash of different expectations, mediated through the incoherence of the narrative, becomes clear:

“Zair can’t swim either, but as the boat began to tip upside-down, he climbed over the edge of the boat sticking up in the air to its underside, and from there he was rescued. What was your favorite hiding place when you were a child? But 550 out of 800 drowned. The TV now shows a large number of fish on a conveyor belt, women’s hands in rubber gloves pick up each fish and in just a few seconds slice it into filets with a large knife.” (Erpenbeck, 5)

There are numerous points of departure for thinking about Gehen, ging, gegangen as a framing of migration, particularly the experience of refugees. As a political work, the novel clearly pursues a similar aim as the “Oplatz”-protest, namely creating visibility and recognizability for the plight of refugees and their resistance. In addition, but perhaps no less politically, we could say that the stream-of-consciousness style of the book makes it so that the story and the refugee’s experiences are mediated through Richard. What does it mean for the novel to tell a migration narrative from the perspective of a native German?

Lisa Friedrich is an MA student at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

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