Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Erpenbeck’

Book Review – Go Went Gone

Posted by lucypopescu on June 6, 2018

Many believe Germany has provided one of the most compassionate European responses to refugees in recent years: Opening its borders, providing language lessons and helping them to settle. However, in her latest novel Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck digs deep and uncovers a fragile tolerance, as well as a harmful level of bureaucracy that is particularly damaging for certain refugees, namely black African men.

Richard is a retired professor of classical philology and a widower. He is lonely and set in his ways. When he befriends a group of African refugees, housed in the disused wing of a nursing home, he finds his life and many of his values turned upside down. He realises his own alarming lack of knowledge about the African continent and teaches himself where each border lies and the names of the capital cities. So he can better remember the men he meets he gives them the names of characters from classical mythology.

Rashid, the large Nigerian and de facto leader of the group becomes ‘the Olympian – the thunderbolt hurler’. A young man with unruly curls who worked as a slave in Niger reminds Richard of Apollo. He renames Awad, the Ghanian whose mother died giving birth to him, after the medieval legend of Tristan. Employing his academic mind, Richard asks the men numerous questions and learns of their traumatic pasts. Each has a horror story to tell. Many ended up in Libya and when war erupted were forced onto boats, where they risked being shot by the Libyan army or bombed by the Europeans. Richard invites one man, Osarabo, to come and play his piano; another, Rufu, comes to his house to read Dante because his Italian is better than his German.

Erpenbeck has written a profound mediation on the many ways Europe is failing the dispossessed. Regulations, like Dublin II, ‘allow all the European countries without a Mediterranean coastline to purchase the right not to have to listen to the stories of arriving refugees’. Throughout the novel, she demonstrates western hypocrisy and how the developed world is responsible for many of Africa’s problems – whether it is the French company Areva mining uranium in Niger or the US selling arms to Chad. She underlines the shared humanity of the refugees with their German hosts at the same time as questioning the arbitrary borders and divisions they thoughtlessly create:

[I]s it a rift between Black and White? Or Poor and Rich? Stranger and Friend? Or between those whose fathers have died and those whose fathers are still alive? Or those with curly hair and those with straight Those who call their dinner fufu and those who call it stew? Or those who like to wear yellow, red and green t-shirts and those who prefer neckties? Or those who like to drink water and those who prefer beer? Or between speakers of one language and another? How many borders exist within a single universe?

She is not afraid to interrogate Germany’s Nazi past, the failure of the GDR (where she was born), and how racist assumptions continue to influence state decisions. The refugees in Go Went Gone face Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy. Often actions are masked as helping the refugees when they are effectively protecting German interests. Erpenbeck also finds a resonance in the harsh treatment of the refugees and the treatment of the Jews in the Holocaust:

Richard asks himself whether forty heavily armed men are really necessary to remove twelve African refugees from a residential facility, not to mention the other 150 or so police officers waiting in the squad cars for their signal. Tomorrow – this is already clear to him – the newspaper will report on the high cost of this deployment, and this country of bookkeepers will be aghast and blame the objects of the transport for the expense, as used to happen in other periods of German history, with regard to other transports.

Richard listens patiently to the refugee’s heart-breaking stories, recognising them as the ‘gift’ they are. Richard is profoundly changed, his life unexpectedly enriched by his various friendships with the refugees. He also realises the prejudices of some of his German friends: Jorg, the psychiatrist he used to holiday with, belittles the fragile state of a refugee’s mental health claiming: ‘These guys still believe in the medicine man. You dance around him in a circle a few times, and he’ll be as good as new’. Neither are the Africans presented as saints. Richard weeps bitterly when he realises one of the refugees he has befriended may have burgled his home.

There are many layers to unpack in Erpenbeck’s extraordinary novel, superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky. Her disquiet, which evidently inspired this fiction, is borne out with the recent election results in German – members of the nationalist, rightwing AfD have entered parliament and it is currently the third largest party. Richard is a hugely credible and memorable creation, struggling to lay to rest his own demons. But it is the Africans’ stories that haunt Go Went Gone. Erpenbeck met and interviewed many refugees before writing the novel and there is little doubt on whose side she stands. What remains with you is her unflinchingly humanitarian gaze.

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European Literature Days – October 2015

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

SpitzThe European Literature Days (ELiT) festival held in the Wachau region of Austria encourages cultural exchange between European based writers, translators, publishers and readers. This year the overall theme was “The Migrants”, a loaded term and geopolitically relevant given the refugee crisis currently being played out in central and eastern Europe.

A.L. Kennedy gave a powerful keynote lecture which served as a resounding call for writers and artists to do more to counter the negative propaganda surrounding migrants and refugees. “True art is not an indulgence,” she warns, “but a fundamental defence of humanity.” Kennedy evokes a past, present and future where ‘Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties.” But the rest of us face the same threat and fate: “When art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives.” All engaged artists and artists, those interested in safeguarding free expression and culture should view themselves as “voluntary migrants” or “Honorary Others”, she suggests, because they know from experience that art is a more powerful tool than propaganda.

Exploring literary trends in Europe, Rainer Moritz, a German writer, publisher and translator, remarked on the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six autobiographical novels, entitled My Struggle. Books presented as autobiography which contain elements of fiction are increasingly popular, he suggests. Moritz and French-German academic Jurgen Ritte embarked on a lively discussion about ‘novels without fiction’ also called ‘exofiction’. In Germany there appears to be a distrust of fiction and instead a yearning for what is perceived as authentic, including a renewed interest in political novels. Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Going, went, gone, nominated for the German Book Prize, is a case in point. It is about refugees in contemporary Germany. Crime novels continue to be big in Germany. Moritz noted that every city in Germany must have its own detective.

Rosie Goldsmith, who also moderated, responded that if there was a detective in every German town, then almost every English town now has a literary festival. There is also a proliferation of literary prizes and many readers orientate themselves around these awards, using them as a guide to what to read. Goldsmith observed that fantasy fiction continues to be widely read, perhaps prompted by the popularity of various TV programmes and films. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, is a notable example of the genre’s literary potential.

Despite further cuts in arts, the smaller independents continue to publish literary fiction in translation. German authors, in particular, have done well in Britain. Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The End of Days, there was a German strand at this year’s Cheltenham literary festival and Julia Franck’s West, Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ and Timur Verms Look Who’s Back were published to great acclaim.

True to the festival theme, various international writers who have settled in Europe were invited to contribute. These included graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in Paris; Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan, president of Lebanese PEN who lives part of the time in Paris; South Korean born Anna Kim; The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub; French Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi; and Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Germany. Once again, EliT explores topical themes and celebrates a diverse range of international authors.

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Summer reading – literary fiction in translation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 7, 2015


If you love literary fiction in translation, travelling to different times and other worlds, three must reads for late summer include One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck and The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. All three embrace big themes – existentialism, identity, love, loss and grief – cover huge swathes of 20th century history and interweave the personal and political to great effect.
the end of daysIn Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky) we follow the fortunes of a Jewish family, in particular one woman who manages to keep escaping death. We travel with Erpenbeck’s character from her birth in a small Galician town in the early 1900s, through Vienna and Moscow to East Berlin and finally a reunified Germany. As a baby she is rescued from a cot death by a handful of snow; as a young woman she is saved from suicide by taking a different route home; later she is spared Stalin’s gulags by a propitious act of fate. She survives various horrors of the last century and becomes a successful writer. Her numerous possible deaths reflect the transitory nature of life and the fragility of the human condition. At the end of the novel, her weeping son wonders ‘whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.’ This slim novel, winner of this year’s Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, packs a mighty punch and richly deserves its numerous accolades.

TheMeursaultInvestigationAnother prizewinner, Kamel Daoud’s debut The Meursault Investigation (in a limber translation by John Cullen) re-examines Albert Camus’s The Outsider from an Arab perspective. Harun resides in Oran and drinks every night in his local bar. He regales a literature student with his version of Meursault’s murder of a nameless Arab on a hot summer’s day in Algiers in 1942. The victim was Harun’s older brother, who he names Musa.  Harun describes the impact Musa’s death had on his family and just as Meursault struggles with feelings of indifference after his random act of violence, Harun confronts his own lack of faith: ‘As far as I am concerned, religion is public transportation I never use.’ During his trial, Meursault is effectively condemned for not mourning his mother’s death. By contrast, Harun’s murder of a Frenchman, twenty years later, is deplored by the Algerian authorities because it happens after Independence and had not been a deliberate act of resistance. Daoud has created his own memorable fiction in which he brilliantly exposes the rise of Islamism in Algeria and his nation’s failures post-independence. At the end of the novel Harun describes an overwhelming desire to climb up his local ‘prayer tower’ in order ‘to cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer and that I wanted to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.’ Chillingly, Daoud’s indictment of religious authoritarianism has led one cleric to call for his death.

One Night MarkovitchAyelet Gundar-Goshen’s accomplished debut, One Night, Markovitch, opens in the British mandate of Palestine on the eve of the Second World War, and spans many years in the lives of two friends Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. They could not be more dissimilar. Zeev is a fearless fighter and womaniser whose mustache ‘was famous in the entire area and, some said in the entire country’. Yaacov is immediately forgettable – the sort of man who is ‘gloriously average’, his face ‘remarkably free of distinguishing features.’ They forge an unlikely alliance after Yaacov saves Zeev’s life. The pair join a group of men en route to Europe to rescue Jewish women. They marry them so that they will be allowed into Palestine, on the understanding that once there they will divorce. But Yaacov’s partner is Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he refuses to give her up on their return. Their loveless marriage, Yaacov’s obsession, Bella’s cold distain, is in sharp contrast to the devotion and passion enjoyed by Zeev and his one love, Sonya, a lioness of a women who smells of oranges. Yaacov and Zeev’s friendship endures through war and peacetime. They bring up children, suffer pain and loss, and grow old together. Expertly translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston this is an unforgettable tale of love, hope, desire and friendship.

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Reykjavik International Literary Festival

Posted by lucypopescu on September 28, 2013

New Voices Award


The weather was hostile but the welcome warm at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival. Many world renowned writers, including Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Herta Muller and Haruki Murakami, have attended this festival since its inauguration in 1985 and this year was no exception. Canadian Douglas Copeland, Indian Kiran Desai and German Jenny Erpenbeck all read from their latest books and contributed to panel discussions. Belarusian Svetlana Alexievitch, a courageous journalist whose books about the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have earned her international acclaim and awards (and an extended period in exile), was also a noteworthy speaker. Astonishingly, Alexievitch appears to be out of print in the UK and I hope a publisher will rectify this shortly. Her latest book, Time Second Hand, will be published in several languages in the autumn.

Our main host for the festival was Sjón. A prolific writer, Sjón has written novels, poetry, plays, librettos and picture books for children. He has received numerous literary awards and was also Oscar nominated with Björk for writing the lyrics to ‘I’ve Seen It All’ from the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark. His novels The Whispering MuseFrom the Mouth of the Whale and The Blue Fox (translated into English by Victoria Cribb and published by Telegram Books) provide a fascinating introduction to Iceland, its extraordinary landscape, mythology and culture. Sjón is the President of the Icelandic Centre of PEN, the worldwide association of writers, and the organisation’s 79th annual congress coincided with the festival. Appropriately, this included the presentation of International PEN’s New Voices Award for a short story by a young and unpublished writer aged between 18 and 30. The winner was South African Masande Ntshanga (pictured receiving his award from Alain Mabanckou) and you can read his winning entry, Space, here.

Björk added a touch of glamour attending an afternoon session on ‘Digital Frontiers’, about free expression on the internet, and one of the writers’ evening receptions. Highlights for me were meeting Herman Koch, Dutch author of The Dinner published in the UK by Atlantic Books (a film adaptation was con-currently premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) and Mabanckou, a renowned Francophone African author, whose novel, Black Bazaar, was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Sadly I missed Polish poet and writer Ewa Lipska, whose novel, Sefer, I recently reviewed here. I look forward to reading Danish Kim Leine whose latest novel set in 18th century Greenland, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, is to be published by Atlantic Books next year. I also met various Icelandic authors, such as the wonderfully named Haukur (Hawk) Ingvarsson who I hope will be picked up by an English publisher and Kristin Eiriksdottir whose short story, ‘Holes in People’, appeared in Dalkey Archive’s anthology Best European Fiction 2011.

Reykjavik is designated as a UNESCO City of Literature and proudly nurtures a vibrant community of writers. What I particularly loved about the festival was that it introduced us to an array of Icelandic authors, brought together high profile international names with emerging voices, and served to encourage the next generation of writers. This year, because it was organised in association with International PEN, there was an emphasis on free expression. There can’t be many festivals that can lay claim to such a comprehensive and multi-layered approach to the written word.

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