Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: The Basics

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This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying ‘Go, Went, Gone’ in AOS1: Unit 3, Reading & Responding to Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum


‘Go, Went, Gone’ is a novel told in the 3rd person limited point of view and centred on the protagonist Richard’s perspective.  However, at times the narrative does alter perspective shifting to 2 of the refugees’ stories, for example Chapter 13 is from Apollo’s perspective and Chapter 27 from Awad’s perspective.  Erpenbeck uses these brief moments of perspective shift to allow the reader access to thoughts they would not otherwise see.  The work is fiction but the issues in the novel are based in reality regarding the refugee crisis and the German and European response.  The novel draws also on real laws, regulations and events making is grounded in fact and the stories of the men Richard interviews even more powerful.


The novel has a fairly linear structure, beginning, middle and end with 55 chapters but includes different layers, conversations, Richard’s own thoughts and various events that are important to the refugee’s lives and moments on Richard’s own life journey.  The text also references laws and regulations surrounding the refugees along with other intertextual references, direct quotes and allusions.

The Importance of the Verb ‘To Go’ in the Title

The novel takes its title from the German irregular verb ‘to go’ and its various tense forms ‘gehen, ging, gegangen’ is literally translated to ‘go, went, gone’.  The words ‘to go’ are repeated in several places in the novel.  The phrase ‘Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?’ is repeated on two pages 266 & 267 highlighting the complex issue of where do the refugees go when no country wants them to stay.  The German language is also symbolic of a new life and new possibilities for the refugees but the barrier of not understanding is also problematic when they cannot interpret the complex laws that govern their rights to live and work in Germany.

Libyan Civil War in 2011

‘Go, Went, Gone’ was published in Germany in 2015 at the height of the ‘immigration crisis’.  What was framed as a crisis for European states such as Germany, Italy, Greece, The Netherlands, Denmark and France, among others, was in fact a humanitarian catastrophe affecting some of the world’s poorest nations and resulting in the mass migration of these populations from zones of political instability and violence.  As in the case of Libya, largely caused by direct NATO assault on the existing state.  In 2011 forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya clashed with foreign forces trying to remove him from power that escalated into a full-blown civil war where more than one million people fled the country.  Black Africans were being targeted by rebel forces as they tried to flee and were subjected to atrocious violations of their human rights.

Seeking Asylum in Europe

The distance between Tripoli, in Libya, and the Italian island of Lampedusa is only 300 kilometres, but the journey over rough seas, in poorly provisioned, barely seaworthy boats, is a harsh one.  Refugees fleeing Libya often paid smugglers for the journey but many died in transit or are drowned when the ships are wrecked by storms and rough seas before ever reaching land.  Of the few that survive the journey, the process of seeking refuge and asylum is far from easy.  Erpenbeck’s readers will immediately recognise the charged political setting of the novel.  Refugees seeking asylum are kept in a state of permanent uncertainty as to their rights to even apply for asylum, a situation that Erpenbeck examines as a cruel contemporary denial of human rights.

Laws and Regulations on Asylum Seekers

The novel refers to laws and regulations that govern the movement and settlement of migrants across Europe.  The one Richard studies in ‘Go, Went, Gone’ is ‘Dublin II’ that is based on the assumption all EU member states provide refugees with similar levels of protection.  However, the reality is more complex with each country interpreting the regulations in ways that suit their needs and is unfair to the asylum seekers.  Detained in countries like Germany in the novel the refugees are not permitted to work while their papers on asylum are being processed.

The Text from Richard’s Perspective

As Richard, a recently retired classics professor, contemplates what appears to be his own diminishing and solitary future, he encounters a group of men whose collective futures are exceedingly more precarious.  In ‘Go, Went, Gone’, Jenny Erpenbeck dramatises this fateful encounter between an otherwise unremarkable character and the poignantly rendered African refugees.  Richard is an individual who also happens to personify, through his career and academic specialisation, the deeply inscribed values of European civilisation, its classical humanist culture of thought, literature and philosophy – quite a contrast to this very different group of men who have arrived in Germany from outside Europe’s borders, from outside Europe’s cultural identity.

Richard – protagonist, retired professor of philology becomes interested in the refugee men’s issues. His life journey changes perspective to become their friend & the shared human experience of empathy for their plight.Detlef & Sylvia – close friends of Richard, share history of Richard’s wife’s death & offer him a sounding board for his feelings towards the refugees.Jorg & Monika – friends of Richard’s whose attitudes towards the refugees show a lack of empathy and make jokes about Richard’s relationship with them.
Rashid – Richard calls the Olympian/the thunderbolt-hurler.  Lost his children on the voyage from Africa.  Was a metalworker and is frustrated at his inability to work.Apollo – Richard names him after the Greek God.  He is a Tuareg man from the desert.Osarobo – Richard teaches him piano at his home and he is convinced Europeans think black men are criminals.
Karon – first seen by Richard sweeping and his actions seem futile without hope.  Richard buys Karon’s family land in Ghana.Awad – Richard calls Tristan.  His father was killed by Gaddafi’s men & Awad fled on a boat for Europe.Rufu – a silent and brooding figure that later Richard finds out was prescribed tranquilisers but after his tooth was filled, he came back to full health.
Immigration & the refugee crisisChanging perspectivesThe meaning of life
Freedom & confinementImportance of the pastBarriers & borders
Privilege & identityMovement of displaced peopleLegacy of European humanism
Lost futures and German pastGDR & The Berlin WallLaws & regulations on refugees Dublin II
The dead man in the lakeLanguage barriers & learning German language ‘go, went, gone’Music & piano
Bodies of waterBordersThe ‘iron law’

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian VCE Curriculum

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