I've had The Seventh Cross on my to-read list for years. When I finally found a copy, it was a 1942 edition buried deWhat a find! And not an easy one.
I've had The Seventh Cross on my to-read list for years. When I finally found a copy, it was a 1942 edition buried deep in library storage, with only one cover, wrapped in paper and string to keep it all together. Frankly I didn't realize libraries kept books so badly damaged, but I'm glad mine did.
The Seventh Cross would have been worth a read even if it wasn't the best read in of itself - a novel which graphically depicts concentration camps and the totalitarian state, published in 1942? Shows the lie of anyone who post-war said, 'Oh, but we had no idea...'
But even better, the book is a great read: George's escape from a camp (at a time when such camps were still mostly used for political prisoners) and his subsequent battle to stay escaped makes for a gripping experience where things change rapidly page by page. George himself is obviously sympathetic, obviously someone you root for, but by no means an angelic or moralistic stand-in. I probably would have forgiven it if he was, considering, but George is plenty flawed - actually, he comes across as kind of an asshole. Before his imprisonment he treated his wife and son terribly, was happy to sleep with friends' lovers, and often cut people off without warning.
Yet, with all that, you still feel empathy for this desperate man, injured and exhausted and hunted and terrified, searching for someone he can trust. And you feel for his fellow escapees, and the pain it causes George each time he learns one's been recaptured and returned to the camp for certain torture and death. The events surrounding Wallau are particularly wrenching.
Sprinkled around George's escape are a myriad of other characters, some repugnant, some heroic, many in the middle somewhere, all very human. Seghers describes with talent how utterly entangled was the Nazi state with every single thing every single person did. And she describes how living in such a state can warp human interaction. George's ex-girlfriend pretends she doesn't know him; an old political ally has since apparently taken up with the Nazis; George's own brother is now an SS officer who'd be delighted to turn him in himself. But there are also people who help him, some of whom he never meets, some of whom (Franz!) you'd never think would want to help him and yet rise mightily to the occasion.
The book never goes in for torture porn, but you see the various wraths of the guards (the one is paranoid, the other is bored without bloodlust, the next is just doing his job) and you see how that violence plays out on the prisoners' heads. George is described as having half a Glasgow smile: "There was a rip or - what shall I call it! - as if someone had tried to make the corner of his mouth reach his left ear."
Interesting (to me, anyway, since my WWII reading tends to revolve around the Holocaust in particular) was that the book was very much focused on political criminals, with only passing mention of anti-semitism. It was there, but lurking between the pages, reminding you as the reader - many years and worlds away - of what hadn't happened just quite yet. That poor bastard Dr. Lowenstein, whose only crime was bandaging a gashed hand - he's arrested with several others, and all of those others are eventually released, but not Dr. Lowenstein. And the book is so casual in mentioning off-hand that he hasn't been (and never will be) set free.
Haunting. This is a book that deserves more attention than it's got....more
When I first finished this book I was incredibly unsatisfied - ok, so the boy grows up and dithers about his life a while and ultimately makes the easWhen I first finished this book I was incredibly unsatisfied - ok, so the boy grows up and dithers about his life a while and ultimately makes the easiest of the available choices and the end. So what? It was only after some reflection that I realized that 'so what' - that dithering - is exactly the point. After a lifetime of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) what you are left with is a smart but terrified adult, someone too self-conscious to go to a dance or have faith in his well-deserved chance at university. Even a trip to the movies is overwhelming. He's trapped no matter what decision he makes.
Mahoney is a real wretch of a character who I suppose really does think he loves his children. He's desperate for their affection the more he ages, and over the course of the novel it becomes clear the boy is desperate to give him that affection, for all that his understandable rage acts as a cover.
I found it interesting that only one of his several children is named (Joan). It adds to the claustrophobia of the family. And if the boy is trapped mentally then Joan is trapped physically - school isn't an option for her, so her only choices seem to be living under Mahoney's thumb or working for (and being abused by) another family as a servant. Slim pickings.
I'm still not totally settled with the whole effect - would have liked the story to be longer, maybe - but it's a marvel that this was published when it was. And the ending is deceptively unsettling: it ends as it began, really, with the main character sharing a bed with his abuser. Abuse is cyclicle. One wonders what kind of father the boy will make.
Also, stylistically I loved the unusual choices, the rapid jump from first to second to third person, never naming the boy, etc. Keeps you off-center, keeps you on your guard. ...more