The Seventh Well
The Seventh Well was originally published in East Germany in 1971, but not until its reissue in 2006 did it begin to achieve the notice it deserves. Its life story is thus not dissimilar to that of Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, which sank almost without trace on its first publication in 1947 but has gone on to be recognised as one of the greatest works of Holocaust literature. I fervently hope Fred Wander’s novel will achieve the same reputation. Although it is a novel, and Levi’s book is a memoir, there are many similarities between them – their brevity, their anecdotal structure, their memorable cast of everyday heroes, but most of all, their total freedom from judgmentalism. What is the point, they seem to say, in even trying to understand what the Nazis did to the Jews and other ethnic groups? All the writer can do is bear witness, chronicle faithfully and meticulously his experience and those of his fellow prisoners, and let the events speak for themselves. This Wander does, with the same painful honesty as Levi. His narrator is no storybook hero, no beacon of moral rectitude and fearless valour. He is often ashamed of himself for surviving because this involves him in moral abnegation and a narrowing of focus which reduces him, in his own eyes, to little more than an animal. Conversely, he is always compassionate and often very funny about the men with whom he shares his existence in the camps. His humanity is not lost, merely dormant, and triumphs in his writing.
This is one of the best books I have read so far this year, which is a tribute as much to Michael Hofmann’s eloquent and unobtrusive translation as to Wander himself. I cannot recommend it too highly.