Go, Went, Gone Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 52-page guide for “Go, Went, Gone” by Jenny Erpenbeck includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 55 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Homeland and Refuge and The Value of Work.
Go, Went, Gone, is a 2015 fiction novel by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. It tells the story of a recently retired professor of German philology named Richard and his relationship to a group of African refugees as he attempts to help them find residences in Berlin. Most of the men arrive in Europe via boat before making their way to Berlin, where Richard first encounters them as they occupy a town square called Alexanderplatz.
When the novel begins, Richard’s wife has been dead for several years and he has just left the university. He has more time to himself than ever before and is unsure of how to use it. His garden and his books receive most of his attention as he adjusts to the new stage of his life. Richard lives near a lake and had planned on boating on it frequently, but a man drowned months before the novel’s beginning and the thought of the man’s corpse—which has still not been found—unsettles him to the point where he does not go onto the lake. He frequently imagines the man on the lake’s bottom, trapped in limbo.
One evening, Richard sees a group of African men on the news. They have just ended a hunger strike. The men have been occupying the square, refusing to give their names. They claim that all they want to do is to be allowed to work and to have a place to live. Richard is struck by the power of silence that their protest shows: By refusing to reveal their identities, they maneuver themselves into a situation where they hope they can take on new identities as citizens of Berlin. Many of the men are sent to a former nursing home, which is then used like a dormitory for them.
Richard decides to visit the home and interview the men. He is interested in writing about their lives, how they arrived in Germany, and their goals. Most of the men are responsive, and their heartbreaking stories galvanize a change in Richard’s perspective and his desire to help them. The men he talks with fled from Africa after experiencing brutal violence during the worst period of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. While traveling overseas to Europe, over 550 of the 800 drowned. Richard begins to see that his own challenges are petty and trivial in comparison with those of the refugees.
Richard begins tutoring German classes at the home. As a trained researcher and academic, he also begins studying immigration policy to see if he can help the men gain work permits and citizenship. His efforts are thwarted as he descends into a morass of bureaucracy and ignorance. There is little he can offer to the men besides his friendship, although he continues to try to help.
As the novel ends, Richard has enlisted his circle of friends to give over 100 of the men a place to sleep. Several of them sleep in Richard’s library, music room, and dining room. He buys a plot of land in Ghana so that one of the men can go home and use it for a plantation with his family. At the conclusion of the story, Richard reveals that his wife was often unhappy with him, as a result of an abortion that he convinced her to get. Surrounded by his new friends, he feels a greater peace than he has in a long time.
Go, Went, Gone, is a masterful response to the modern-day refugee situation in Germany. It is highly recommended for students of immigration policy, refugee issues, and literature.