115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Refugees, Retirees, and Revised Realities in Recent German Works of Fiction

Friederike von Schwerin-High, Pomona College

Three recent German novels, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen, Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis  and Elisabeth Wintermantel’s Yaron dramatize encounters between newly arrived young refugees and newly retired German professionals. The encounters bring about complex and nuanced acts of empathetic learning. Even while portraying  the cruelties of bureaucracy, policing and traumatization, the novels offer glimpses of the old and the new residents becoming transformed by and indispensable to each other.  



Two recently published works of fiction, both of which were written by well-known German writers and immediately rose to award-winning literary prominence, Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (2015) and Bodo Kirchhoff’s novella Widerfahrnis (2016) dramatize encounters between newly arrived refugees and newly retired German professionals. These interactions bring about examinations of traumata: on the part of the refugees those stemming from the devastations of recent military conflicts and on the part of the retirees those still lingering from World War II and divided Germany. Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel shows Richard, a recently retired classics professor, and a group of young Nigerian and Ghanaian men befriending each other. Many reviewers have commented on the prescient qualities of this novel, which was published just before the arrival of large refugee populations in Germany. Kirchhoff’s novella deals with a smaller cast of characters but also manages to portray several different sides of the European refugee situation as we follow Julius Reither and Leonie Palm on their trip from Germany to Italy and their unpredictable meetings on the way with people seeking asylum. These two frequently reviewed works of fiction will be juxtaposed with each other, as we also cast a glance at a lesser known, but well-received narrative, the 2014 (young adult) work of fiction, Yaron, written by first-time novelist Elisabeth Wintermantel and depicting a budding acquaintanceship between two elderly, semiretired, German friends, Yolanda and Oscar, and an undocumented teenage boy from Russia, Yaron. The encounters chronicled in these three works effect existential self-interrogations and complex, nuanced acts of empathetic learning. The older German citizens are reminded of many aspects of German and European history through the stories and plight of the young refugees. For all their literariness and philosophical introspection, these narratives also reflect an important social reality of contemporary German society: a demographic reverse pyramid with an “army” of older citizens and smaller numbers of members of German-born younger generations: remarkably, in the three novels, the older German characters have all suffered from the absence of biological children in varied and haunting ways.

As Richard in Gehen, ging, gegangen learns from his new friendships, the ability to see Germany as a place of safety and to know nothing of its past affords a liberating, phenomenological point of departure. A phenomenological approach also underlies the initial contacts between an older couple and a mysterious young migrant in both Widerfahrnis and Yaron. In many of these cross-cultural and cross-generational encounters we witness severe setbacks, disappointments, and dilemmas, as well as the cruelty of bureaucracy, policing, and resurfacing memories. At the same time, the worlds constructed in the three novels offer a glimpse into a future in which the two sides become transformed by and indispensable to each other. While the events are often narrated from the points of view of the elderly German citizens, the refugees at times return and reverse the puzzled gaze. My analysis will try to assess whether these novels can be said to succeed in effectively portraying the deployment of sympathetic imagination that goes beyond turning the new acquaintances into projection screens and in what ways the utopian living arrangements these novels offer are persuasive.