March 29, 2019
Emergency or not, what’s happening at the US border with Mexico concerns all Americans. But dilemmas about how many migrants to take in, and on what basis, are not ours alone. Last year, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the world’s displaced population stood at more than 70 million, with Europe bearing much of the pressure for resettlement. Germany heroically accepted a million refugees before an internal backlash set in. Even so, after Turkey, Pakistan, and Uganda, it was the fourth-largest host country for migrants in 2018.
In her quietly compelling novel “Go, Went, Gone,” Jenny Erpenbeck considers the refugee problem from the viewpoint of Richard, a retired German classics professor. His wife has died; his work is winding down; he has no children. Though he now lives comfortably, his earlier years were shaped by hardship: first, amid the ruins of World War II, then under the deferred prosperity of East German socialism. Reunification brought new freedom, and material advantages; retirement brought something else.
In Berlin one day, Richard notices a group of African refugees seeking to draw attention to their plight. Gradually, he moves from benign indifference to scholarly curiosity to unrelieved distress. In straightforward prose, Erpenbeck excavates layer after layer of this German everyman’s existence, turning his questions into our own.
Richard tries to help and eventually befriends a small group of refugees. The back stories of these men come painfully alive for him, along with their hopelessness amid the tangled laws governing asylum. (The nations of Europe have become expert at forcing unwanted migrants upon each other.) In the hands of a less gifted writer, Richard’s transformation might seem implausible. But Erpenbeck convincingly blends Richard’s existential loneliness with the refugees’ statelessness, creating a haunting fugue on survivorship.
“The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World” by Gulwali Passarlay offers a child’s version of the refugee story. Written with the assistance of Nadene Ghouri, a journalist, the book describes Gulwali’s flight from Afghanistan at age 12. The boy’s father and other relatives were killed by US forces not long after the post-9/11 invasion. Fearing for their safety, his mother orders Gulwali and his older brother to seek asylum in Europe.
Almost immediately, the two are separated. Passarlay’s account of his year- long solo journey to England, where he hopes to reconnect with his sibling, is stuffed with horrors, including hunger, cold, and multiple imprisonments. A perilous sea crossing aboard a vessel lacking toilets is memorable for its stench.
“The Lightless Sky” makes clear how essential smugglers are to those who would escape. Passarlay comes into contact with 25. After repeated setbacks, he conceals himself in a refrigerated banana truck, finally crossing the channel into England. There, he acquires helpful mentors, including a foster family, and by sheer chance locates his brother. Yet Passarlay struggles with despair. He attempts suicide more than once before embracing his goal of one day assisting his native country.
The writer Aleksandar Hemon had an easier time. In 1992, at 27, he left Bosnia for the United States under the auspices of a cultural exchange program. Shortly afterward, as he recounts in “The Book of My Lives,”war broke out. What should have been a month’s sojourn turned into permanent self-exile.
While Hemon escaped the stark deprivation endured by so many refugees, he experienced the same sense of psychological displacement. Watching the destruction of Sarajevo on television, he posited that if his beloved home city and his mind were conterminous, he himself might disintegrate. “The Book of My Lives” captures his fierce love of Sarajevo, and his self-preserving embrace of Chicago.
Like Hemon, the protagonist of Igiaba Scego’s novel “Adua” longs for her homeland. But in this case, home is Somalia. Coming of age in the 1970s, Adua falls into the hands of an Italian couple scouting for a black woman to appear in their film. Star-struck, she eagerly signs on. What follows, in Rome, is sexual exploitation, including in the only film Adua will ever make.
Over time, she connects with an immigrant community (a version of Somalia, she observes, has developed in Rome’s back streets). Like other Somali women, she takes in and even marries one of the young men who, fleeing Somalia’s war, survive the Mediterranean crossing years later.
Much of this incantatory novel is a dialogue between a freedom-seeking daughter and her traditionalist father. For Adua, the bonds of love prove as constraining as any legal system bent on controlling outsiders. As a child, she believed Italy was freedom. As a black woman, she is forced to reconsider. Yet Rome offered refuge during Somalia’s civil conflict and the space to contemplate returning once it eased. Adopted homes may not give themselves fully, Scego seems to suggest, but they powerfully clarify what has been lost.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.