BOOK REVIEW (sort of): My contribution to the “Buffalo Books” discussion of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go, Went, Gone”

I’m enjoying our discussion, so far, and also the book, Erpenbeck’s excellent writing, the rich characters (especially Richard and Rashid), and the timeliness of the subject, with more refugees in the world than ever previously recorded.

Other highlights include Chapter 27, which for the first time gives us a chapter offering the perspective of someone other than Richard (Awad). It’s refreshing and useful to see how Richard and his curious quest are perceived by those whose lives he’s investigating and trying to help.

Another highlight for me, however difficult it was to get through, is the passage (Pp. 233-4) about the flaying and displaying of the corpse of Soliman, Freemason brother of Mozart, etc. I thought it very telling, very effective, and a shock of ice water in the face for any reader with illusions of Western “civilization.” As Gandhi famously replied when asked what he thought of Western Civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.” And Richard’s reflections on this gruesome defilement — with his hypothetical counterpoint about “Heinrich Schliemann dressed in a Spanish matador’s costume or a traditional Mongolian garment” displayed in the National Museum in Cairo — was sheer perfection, spot on and even humorous, illustrating how absurd, unscientific, and truly barbaric was the treatment of Soliman’s remains.

Still, I confess I find Richard a frustrating fellow. As mild mannered, generous, and well-meaning as he is, from the beginning of the novel he strikes me as all too typical of the West: insular to the point of ignorance of the outside world (and of the feelings of others around him, from his wife and his mistress to the refugees he’s getting to know); comfortable to the point of naivete/detachment; and ultimately, a bit obtuse, even several weeks into his project.

I like this assessment of our protagonist from Amber Ruth Paulen’s review of the novel:

“This is a man who thinks about his lover and dead wife in the same breath without seeming to feel any guilt. Richard is a wonderful and complex character, at once meticulous in his investigation of the refugees’ lives and stolidly distant from his emotions and people, which gives him room to grow.”

I’ll add that it’s heartening to see Richard confronting and breaking down the borders that have been constructed to keep human beings apart and struggling separately. His quest and actions are undoubtedly laudable.

But were it not for the fact that he’s a widower who has just retired/been retired (“shunted off into retirement” — P. 240), it’s hard to imagine Richard taking an interest in the plight of these refugees, let alone involving himself in their travails. In the early chapters of the book, it seemed to me that Richard is a bit preoccupied with death, and not just the corpse in the lake, but the prospect of his own death. Natural enough, I suppose, considering he’s reached some important endings in recent years, but still… without his fear of death would he be thus motivated to reach out to another part of his society?

He’s a little myopic. It’s telling that we don’t even learn his wife’s name until more than halfway through the novel (P. 155). It is also telling that Richard was oblivious to the fact that his mistress was seeing someone else and preparing to leave him.

I also find it irksome that Richard invents and persistently clings to the names he’s imposed upon the refugees he’s met: Apollo, Tristan, Hermes, the Thunderbolt Hurler, etc. But as his familiarity with their actual identities grows, he seems to leave this habit behind; Awad, Ithemba, Osarobo, Rufu, Rashid, and the others “become visible” and increasingly human in his eyes. It turns out that they do not experience the deaths of their friends, neighbors, and loved ones in a lesser way than we Westerners do (if anything, the opposite is true, as Westerners are encouraged to “shop” in the wake of tragedy and close ourselves off to the world of death and suffering that’s been created, in no small part, by our own governments and corporations). Richard discovers that his new acquaintances do not “mourn their dead less” (P. 169), and to his credit, he is ashamed that he ever believed such a thing, dehumanizing an entire continent of people.

So far as Richard’s naivete/detachment from the outside world:

When Richard goes for a walk with his friends, “chubby Thomas” shares what he knows about the situation in Niger (p. 147) and concludes with, “And the only government that tried to kick out the French was quickly deposed in a coup. By God knows who.”

Apparently, none of them can imagine who could’ve been responsible… for the coup that ousted the government that “…tried to kick out the French.”

Is it possible that Richard and his friends are unfamiliar with the appallingly long list of nations that have tried to be independent of Western control, only to have their leaders deposed in coups orchestrated by the West (particularly the U.S.)? Just a short list of the democratically elected leaders deposed in such coups would include Mohammed Mossadegh, Patrice Lumumba, Jacobo Arbenz, Ngo Dinh Diem, Salvador Allende — and more recently, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Manuel Zelaya, Mohamed Morsi, Victor Yanukovych, and Dilma Rousseff. And such a list omits the long list of failed coups attempted by the West, including the CIA’s failed assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gualle in 1961, the Bush administration’s failed/immediately reversed 2002 coup in Venezuela, and the Obama administration’s failed regime-change operation in Syria.

When Richard imagines the impossible “To-do” lists of a few of his new refugee friends (p. 204), he seems to have little or no comprehension of the external realities involved. Even if they could achieve such improbable victories from within their own countries, such victories would surely be reversed, posthaste, by implacable Western powers. New governments that don’t tolerate child labor or corruption would be replaced as quickly as the reformist government in Niger that Thomas spoke of… by “God knows who.”

Later (p. 241), Richard wonders if “these long years of peacetime” — with the German citizens “at so great a distance from the wars of others” — have made it possible for the German people to condone such terrible violence against anyone threatening to disrupt their “untroubled circumstances,” anyone threatening to disrupt “the end of history” (in other words, threatening the current balance of power). The violence of the German authorities is so jarring to Richard that he concludes “…it almost looks like war.”

(That’s because it is a war. The violence he’s witnessing is directly connected to the war that the West has brought to the Islamic world… the war to remove Saddam from power, Qaddafi from power, Bashar al-Assad from power, Hamas from power, Hezbollah from power, the Iranians from power… Apparently, Richard is completely ignorant of the neoconservatives’ war to redraw the map of the Middle East in the interest of Western hegemony… once again.)

Elsewhere (p. 167), Richard asks himself “But what war have people now just been through?” This is infuriating. Richard doesn’t seem to possess any awareness that this global war is one in which his country is deeply involved, and that the individuals who launched this war (such as former CIA Director James Woolsey) have explicitly stated that the Global War on Terror is, in fact, the Fourth World War, the Third being the Cold War (with both WWIII and WWIV having resulted in millions of lives lost, from Iran to Guatemala to Korea to Vietnam to Indonesia to Iraq to Palestine to Lebanon to Somalia to Egypt to Libya to Syria to Yemen and beyond).

In a chilling passage, present-day Germany’s xenophobic and cruel attitude toward the refugees reminds him of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and other victims of the Third Reich (p. 209). I think the comparison is apt, so it’s not exactly reassuring to learn that Richard is grateful to have “just as little idea as anyone else what’s in store” for the coming year (p. 207).

A final observation about Richard’s naivete:

Amidst wonderful epiphanies, like borders “create” opponents and the police aren’t looking out for poor people’s interests, Richard speculates (p. 211) that if the police were so inclined, they’d be out to arrest the bank managers who “embezzle so many billions.”

Following the wholesale collapse of the financial system in 2008, this silly notion about embezzling bank managers seems remarkably naive. Bank managers, who actually work for a living, didn’t have anything to do with the meltdown of the financialized economy. Those responsible for the crash occupied positions far above the pay grade of the managerial class… and I thought most people knew that (maybe I’m the one who’s being naive).

As a mature, highly educated, privileged “elite” (in his own words), Richard ought to know that he’s light years from the reality. The meltdown was a massive, global event, and many terrific books have been written on the subject, as well as some outstanding documentaries and at least one brilliant film, “The Big Short.” The well-documented history tells us that Wall Street executives, the heads of the ratings agencies, and top government regulators — including the congressional leadership and a series of U.S. presidents — built a system that was designed to collapse and subsequently extort tens of trillions (not “billions”) from governments the world over.

And that’s exactly what happened, thanks to governments and agencies captured and literally staffed by the institutionally racist and misogynistic, rapaciously predatory, “Vampire Squid”-captained industry: a wholly corrupt industry that was allowed to manage the minutest details of its own bailout.

The botched bailout was not only unthinkably cruel and morally grotesque, it resulted in horrendous consequences for our country… and the world, beginning with the U.K. and Europe. And it went a long way toward creating the political environment that would make viable the candidacies of cartoonishly villainous demagogues like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Jair Bolsonaro.

The botched handling of the bailout explains why millions of Americans were illegally “robo-signed” out of their homes, especially African-Americans, who were deliberately targeted by the industry for the worst sub-prime loans, even when they qualified for prime, in a practice known as “reverse redlining.” That’s how African-American households had their post-Civil Rights Era economic gains wiped out in President Obama’s first term (per the Pew Research Center). The elite criminals responsible for defrauding millions of people and scores of polities (municipalities, counties, states, and entire nations; and pension funds, etc.) are the ones the authorities never came for, but rather bailed out to the tune of not “so many billions,” but trillions of dollars, euros, etc., transferring the pain to whole economies across the Western world, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable and discriminated-against populations, especially in the United States.

Finally, with regard to Richard’s obtuseness:

When Richard learns that the protesters on the roof are without drinking water (p. 229), he immediately abandons hope, thinking, they “can’t (even) drop a plastic bottle” (into the ocean water, as on the refugee ships). Oh, well…

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking, If that were your child on that roof you’d think harder on the subject, friend Richard! You’d be filling plastic bottles with water and getting some of the healthier young men to hurl those bottles up to the roof — if not from the ground, then from a floor with a balcony. Or at least shout up to the protesters to melt the snow and drink the water… the roof is covered in snow! For God’s sake, man, they’re dying! Think of something!

When Osarobo asks Richard if he has any work for him (p. 236), he responds that he doesn’t and reverts to his piano lesson. Later, he concludes that there is a potential livelihood for Osarobo involving the keyboard he’s purchased for him… but he hasn’t reached that conclusion yet — and in any case, that’s not what the desperate younger man requested of him. It’s a painful exchange, because the refugees rarely ask anything of Richard, even after his generosity has been established. I found it heartbreaking that Richard failed to come up with something for Osarobo to do to earn a few euros… and gave up trying rather quickly. No leaves to rake, I’m out of ideas. (No walk to shovel either? No spare, obsolete items to drag up from the basement and donate to charity? Nothing? No calling the neighbors to see if they have an odd job or two — or ten? Work for more than one of his new friends might be available, who knows?)

It’s occurred to me more than once that these gracious, self-sacrificing, downtrodden refugees are probably, in large part, just being polite to the peculiar old German fellow, going to his house to read Dante, play the piano, etc., simply because he’s asked them to. Not necessarily because they place a high value on these activities… at least, not initially.

As much as he does on their behalf, which is admittedly a great deal, I couldn’t help but agonize over the actions that Richard does not take. As he becomes familiar with not just the devastatingly sad (Tristan-evoking) personal stories of these men — but also with the cruel, impossible legal situation that the “iron law(s)” of Europe have put them in, binding them in scores of “conceptually flawed construction(s)” (p. 220) — I wanted to whisper into his ear, “Richard, write a damn letter to the editor, won’t you?” He’s a highly respected, retired Professor Emeritus, and I think his letter would be published… and conceivably have great impact. I had this thought fairly early on in the book, and when poor Richard ends up suffering through the internet bilge of “DontCare” (p. 167) and various ugly, xenophobic newspaper editorials, I knew that he’d missed a bet.

I also felt that Richard should have engaged his very good friends, Jorg and Monika, when he first realized that the couple is afflicted with some bigoted, ignorant notions (p. 196). He should have lovingly and patiently, without condescension or judgment, tried to bring his lifelong friends up to speed; after all, his own sensitivity to such matters was only recently awakened. And that’s what friends do, right? But the reader is given no indication that Richard ever made the attempt. It seems that his difficulties with empathy have prevailed again. In fact, it seems that Jorg and Monika rather precipitously plummet from the status of near, dear friends, to personae non gratae, to be called only in the case of a medical emergency, in Jorg’s case, consulted for his professional advice only. Richard apparently has scrapped decades of friendship, as he now sees Jorg and his wife as human scum.

Too easy. Too unfortunate. Too… Richard. Perhaps there was a teachable moment in there, somewhere, you dear, sweet, womanizing weirdo. And, after all, who are you to judge? For that matter, who am I? We’re all off in some way, so speak to the better angels of people’s natures, especially your friends and loved ones, and hope that they’re charitable enough to do the same for you, when your time comes!

[To offer just one example, I had a good friend and co-worker -- in Redlands, way back when -- who would frequently break out with homophobic claptrap. I called him out on it every time and eventually clobbered him with a few spontaneous lectures, as I am wont to do... whether folks wont to hear it, or not. Within a year, my friend and eventual roommate had not only stopped talking crap, he’d actually embarked on his first-ever homosexual relationship! When he told me about it, I just about fainted (but I certainly never mocked him, I was proud of the kid -- only I did think to myself, “It’s true what they say about extreme homophobes: “Methinks thou dost protest too much” indeed)! And on the general point, if I’d ditched out on every relationship with an American, liberal or conservative, who’d revealed bigoted ideas in my presence, I’d have very few friends in this country at all. And frankly, some of the most shocking garbage has come from Bay Area folks, self-identified liberals, including a few Johnston alums. Because such thinking is prevalent in this country, in my experience. If it were not, few people would have voted for either appallingly racist candidate in our most recent presidential election.]

In conclusion, I doff my hat to the author for making me go through all of these conniptions on behalf of her refugees. I’m sure that Richard’s failures are intended to make me feel this way… and that’s good writing. Not only is Richard frustrating, he’s completely believable, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Furthermore, Erpenbeck has created something special and urgently needed, when it comes to presenting a moving, authentic portrayal of the experiences of these modern victims of war… not so different from victims of wars past (millions of Jews killed in the last Holocaust, millions of Muslims, and counting, in the current one, which appears to have no end in sight).

And honestly, I love Richard and want to hug him and praise him every bit as much as I want to shake him and teach him. The poor, human slob, with his frailties and flaws (cheating on his wife, drooling after the young Ethiopian teacher, privately carrying such hostility for his former colleagues…). And yet I admire the hell out of him for challenging himself and growing — something that few longtime adults do, it seems — whatever instigated his actions, be it fear of death/obsolescence, or whatever.

What Richard does and tries to do for these desperate and despairing men he’s come to know, especially Karon, is really extraordinary and wonderful. I wish the West had hundreds of millions more citizens like Richard… or more specifically, like post-retirement Richard. I’m not so sure that hundreds of millions of pre-retirement Richards would achieve the same effect. In fact, I seriously doubt it.

Because it’s not insignificant that Richard was such close friends with Jorg and Monika for so long — vacationing with them on many occasions and even talking politics (p. 233). Are we to believe that Jorg, who ultimately comes across as fairly monstrous in his prejudices (p. 232), never gave any indication of his deep-seeded bigotry previously? It’s safe to assume that Richard simply never noticed before he became more sensitive to these matters — a quite recent development in his life.

Once more, for the record, I love this novel… almost as much as I loved Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and that’s saying a great deal (amazing book, that).

The rewards of Go, Went, Gone are rich, including the frequent references to history, music, Shakespeare, Dante, and Ovid (!!!). If Richard has led an insular life — much of it behind a literal wall (good metaphor) — I readily concede that that life has been admirably filled with some of the best art (literature, music, etc.) ever created… and the way Richard has shared his knowledge has undoubtedly benefited countless lives.

The only element I’ve been missing is some sense that the author, if not Richard, is aware of the West’s (especially the U.S.’s) dominant, terrorizing, tyrannical role in the world — leading the way, in fact, to the global collapse of the rule of law and the faltering of the planet’s ecosystem.

Maybe Erpenbeck genuinely lacks this awareness, even as she demonstrates great empathy with the refugee victims of the current war.

Perhaps the wisdom that an activist friend from Ghana shared with me in 2008 applies as much to citizens of Europe as it does to Americans:

“Don’t believe your media or politicians — any of them — without skepticism. Look into the truth of things yourself. In Ghana, we benefit from the fact that we know that we are being heavily propagandized by our media and politicians. Most Americans seem not to know how much they’re being propagandized. That’s the disadvantage you’re at. You still don’t know the extent to which your institutions have been corrupted.”

Sadly, I think that my friend’s cautionary words apply today more than ever. We are divided. We are conquered. And the vast majority of beliefs that Americans hold about our politicians and institutions are completely baseless.

Our chances to turn this ship around… go, went… gone?

I certainly hope not.

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