Sunday, August 11, 2019

WITMonth Day 11 | The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers | Review

Confession: I did not like Anna Segher's Transit very much. I didn't loathe it, I just... didn't connect to it. I felt like I didn't understand it the way that I was supposed to. So when NYRB very kindly sent me The Seventh Cross, I was somewhat hesitant. Would I again be disappointed? How would I respond to this long, gloomy-seeming novel?

It turns out that while I didn't quite love it, I did actually like it quite a bit.

The Seventh Cross (translated, as Transit was, by Margot Bettauer Dembo) feels like a very different book from Transit. Where that one progressed in a deliberately slow, almost lazy style, The Seventh Cross takes place over a compressed timescale and has a remarkable tension throughout. The novel isn't exactly brisk - it has its fair share of side characters who get surprisingly whole arcs and there are plenty of slowly meandering portions - but it never stops feeling like it's pushing. It pushes towards its ultimate goal.

This is a tense, exciting novel.

Seven prisoners have escaped a Nazi camp. They are political prisoners, Germans, and this is still prior to the great horrors of the Holocaust. Written while the war was still at its earlier stages, just as the Final Solution was being set into motion, The Seventh Cross is less about the war itself and more about the culture that bred it. As we follow escapee George desperately trying to stay alive, we're exposed to people and places and contexts that help and hinder his attempts. We witness his escape not only from his perspective (his initial rush, his realization that others have been captured and killed, his constant search for safety), but from that of the guards and camp commandant who desperately need to capture him, his (mostly)ex-wife and her family as they are placed under strict surveillance, his old friend who begins to put two and two together, casual passersby, people caught in the crossfire, and strangers who only want to help.

While the core of the story remains George and George's escape, the narration is hardly consistent. This, in fact, was my greatest frustration with the novel - I often felt as though I couldn't keep track of which side characters were whom and what they were contributing to the narrative. While most of the stories felt like they did make some degree of sense by the end of the book, I wasn't sure that I liked all of the sidetracking. It was a little draining. The style, however, remains consistent across the characters, which only made things more complicated.

But pretty much other than that, I really liked The Seventh Cross. Once I got into it (and it did take a full chapter, basically), I was in it. The tension throughout (will George survive? will George make it?) works so well and the relatively slow pacing alongside a sharply anticipatory story makes for wonderful reading. It's the sort of pacing that I wish more books could have, with no question that the story is moving forward yet plenty of time to linger on smaller moments too. The writing is solid, well-suited for the story, and I appreciated the way Seghers gave each of her characters distinct personalities and traits, even when their voices blurred together and they didn't necessarily get a lot of focus themselves.

The politics are also important, and not to be ignored. The Seventh Cross is focused not on the plight of Jewish camps, but on political prisoners who have been too vocal in their objection to the Nazi regime. This is still in the 1930s, before the worst. And yet it is still horror that we need to remember and be aware of. The story reveals the degree to which these camps swallowed up people's lives, regardless how political they themselves might be. Like almost all stories that detail life under fascist rule, it's an important reminder of how quickly things may change. There's a lot to take in here from a meta perspective as well, remembering that Seghers wrote and published this before the death camps became the massive murder machines they would become. There were moments that hint at what is to come, but that's far from the point of the book. Which, frankly, only makes it more interesting to a certain degree.

I can't promise that you'll like The Seventh Cross. There is something unsettling about it and the beginning feels a little out of time, not quite fitting the pacing of the rest of the book. But it's a powerful piece of fiction that works on almost every other level. Even if you, like me, didn't like Transit all that much, give The Seventh Cross a try. It's a pretty great book.

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