“But now, in the midst of this earthquake, the yowling of the air-raid sirens, amidst the wailing of the fleeing hordes, I longed for an ordinary like like a hungry man does for bread and water. In any case, Marie would find peace with me. I would make sure that she would never again fall prey to some guy like me.”
The young German talking to you in a café above the harbor of Marseille, in this tense winter of 1940, is afraid he may be boring you — there are so many stories of refugees anxiously waiting for a visa and a spot on any ship away from the war and raids and prisons and death camps brought by the Nazi march across Europe. But like so many of the others, he must tell his story to someone, if only to make sense of it.
It won’t bore you. Anna Seghers, in 1940 herself a refugee from the Nazis as a Jew and a Communist Party member, experienced this anxiety personally and portrays it vividly. But she has chosen someone very unlike her — male, apolitical and only superficially cultured — to bring us into contact with the great variety of refugees from all parts of Europe, with all kinds of angles and delusions as they seek desperately to escape the mayhem.
As we learn from Peter Conrad’s introduction to this book, she was luckier than many of those crowding in this port.
“In March 1941 she managed to obtain the necessary permits, and secured passage on a ship bound for what was still, for terrorized Europeans, the New World.” She began writing this novel in Mexico. At war’s end, she returned to her native land, to East Berlin, where she became one of the German Democratic Republic’s most respected writers.