“I never had this idea of a nation”: thinking global with Jenny Erpenbeck

Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”

Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck
Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck in Melbourne

Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”

It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”

As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”

“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”

At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.

Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.

“I know the feeling of being afraid”

Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”

So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”

And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.


Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here

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