On the poor side

By Rhonda Dredge

German writer Jenny Erpenbeck held her audience spellbound last month at the Athenaeum when she spoke about the prejudices of middle-class intellectuals. 

Ms Erpenbeck was in Australia for the first time to talk about her acclaimed novel Going Gone Went.

The novel deals with the difficulty people in wealthy countries have empathising with the concerns of asylum seekers.

“In capitalism, work is the only way to gain acceptance and respect,” Ms Erpenbeck said. “If refugees sit and don’t work people say they are lazy.”

Going Gone Went is a novel seen through the eyes of a retired classics professor who has an empty house and is considering how to fill his hours at the end of his working life. 

He bumps into some asylum seekers camping out in a Berlin park and befriends them. The book tracks their lives and stories as they negotiate the tangle of regulations controlling their movement.

At the centre of Jenny Erpenbeck’s work is an argument about writing and research. She returned over and over again to work with a group of men that she represents in her novel whereas journalists usually visit once.

“I spoke to them about their stories of flight. I got involved in things,” she said. She helped with interviews, forms, medical appointments and all of the difficulties of being a refugee in Berlin. 

She is critical of the way doctors and other German professionals have gained employment out of the refugee situation but those who need the work are denied it. She put those concerns into the professor’s mind rather than his own as he slowly awakes to these truths.

“Richard is the basis,” she said. “A reader can follow him and recognise the prejudices. I wanted him to be settled, someone who middle-class intellectuals could identify with.” She said that Richard and the refugees shared some human problems. “They had a lot in common.” 

Erpenbeck began the novel when she heard about the drowning of asylum seekers off the coast of Italy when a boat capsized in 2013. 

“The reaction in the German newspapers was strange. Of course it’s a horrible accident but even when they’re dying that can’t force us to take them into our country. It was the wrong reaction.”

She said that in ancient Greece you couldn’t send someone away if they arrived by sea. “We’ve never been on the poor side,” she warned.

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