Sorrow, Exile, and Cunning
Crossing: A Love Story
Translated by Douglas Irving
(Lavender Ink Press, 2016)
A sea voyage is a state of suspension. For three weeks on the journey from Brazil to the German Democratic Republic in the late 1950s, a ship is a vessel without a home. Crossing the Atlantic from west to east, from south to north, slipping over the equator and watching the Great Bear replace the Southern Cross constellation, our ship, the Norwid, becomes a body without a place, belonging to both its destination and its point of departure without truly inhabiting either. Such is the experience of exile.
Both the primary characters of Anna Seghers’s Crossing: A Love Story, written in 1971 and translated into English for the first time by Douglas Irving, are returning to East Germany by cargo ship after their respective business trips in Brazil. The narrator, Franz Hammer, is traveling by ship for the first time while his fellow passenger, Ernst Triebel, a young doctor, has made the journey several times, first as child in 1938, settling with his father in Rio, and then traveling back to East Germany as a young man to study medicine. Hammer narrates the novel, but it is Triebel’s tale that makes up the heart of the story; the two men meet on the deck each day, and Triebel resumes his account. While Hammer initially resists the young man’s effusive storytelling, he is drawn in by the relationship between Triebel and his childhood love Maria Luisa, who haunts the doctor as he contemplates her disappearance from his life.
Make no mistake: Crossing might be billed as a love story, but the compact, little tale takes personal love as a lens through which to examine the condition of exile, the politics of postwar Germany, and the ramifications of collective guilt. Hammer says of such “joint remorse:” “I was glad I had been too young for this war.” The recent crimes and suffering of Germany is palpable in every conversation. The other passengers on the Norwid give flesh to this little cross section of postwar Europe: Polish expats, singers and nuns, Hammer’s perpetually drunk cabin-mate, who Hammer believes resents him for his German identity. Another passenger, Sadowski, who speaks six languages and fills Hammer in on the personal histories of the others, invokes Joseph Conrad, both as the writer in exile—a man who wrote both outside of his country and outside of his language—but also a man who understood the function of storytelling at sea. As such, the experience of reading Crossing is that of unpacking nesting dolls: Suspended between continents, a group of European expats discuss the state of the world; inside of Hammer’s narrative is Triebel’s lovelorn tale; inside of Triebel’s story are the questions of how one moves forward after devastation. Late in the novel Sadowski returns to the subject of Conrad, describing the scene in Heart of Darkness in which Marlow contemplates the Romans’ arrival in savage England. Another passenger demands: “Has the world not remained savage?” The novel investigates on both an intimate and a global level the aftermath of trauma, separation, and sorrow.
Most of the relationship between Triebel and Maria Luisa unfolds in absence. After an idyllic childhood together in Brazil, Triebel resettles in East Germany and promises to send for her when he has the money. Maria Luisa grows tired of waiting for him. Their letters cease to be a conversation so much as two voices explaining their own particular loneliness. They become incomprehensible to one another. A life together no longer seems possible; years pass. But as Triebel draws his tale to a close, the final act of which has occurred just before he boarded the Norwid, he grows distressed over the obscurity of Maria Luisa’s fate. She is an enigma, a longing, and Triebel’s reaction to his loss calls in to question the truth of her life, of her feeling for him, and of his own memory. But doesn’t history, particularly the history of loss, always conjure such questions? Did he ever really know her at all? What did her face look like anyway?
Seghers herself spent fourteen years in exile, beginning in 1933, first in France and then in Mexico. After the war, she lived in West Berlin for three years before deciding to relocate to East Germany, where she remained until her death in 1983. Her earlier novels, notably The Seventh Cross and Transit, were translated into English in the 1940s and engaged the experience of refuge and exile in the context of the millions of people fleeing Europe at that time. Crossing, by contrast, treats with something more complex: the next-generation cultural fallout of transnational and transcontinental upheaval. Hammer excuses himself from the culpability of Germans of a certain generation by reason of his age, and yet he, too, has been impacted by violence. In the final pages, he confesses that he will never forget the pain of his younger years, the deaths of a brother and a best friend. Sorrow is not overcome easily, Hammer reflects, though he admonishes Triebel: “Stop this once and for all […] I am asking you nicely: do not speak of her again.” Wondering about the fate of Maria Luisa will not undo the past, nor will it answer any of the questions Triebel frantically puts forth. And yet, privately, Hammer considers:
In this ever changing, aspiring world we live in today, it’s good if something permanent stays preserved in you forever, even if that permanence is a sorrow you cannot forget. Because he who has experienced something difficult will understand all those who have been through something difficult.
Isn’t that the refrain we were all taught in school, never forget? Our collective memory might be flawed but it must be clung to nonetheless; in an atmosphere of shifting geopolitical identities and a bevy of new grief, our history is our guide. Seghers’s novel is no less poignant today for treating with a conflict receding into the past and out of living memory. Go forth, she says, and don’t forget; your sorrow will serve the world.
TORREY CRIM lives in Brooklyn. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Epoch, American Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal and Gulf Coast.