Hidden depths

<strong>The Seventh Well</strong>

<em>Fred Wander</em> Granta Books, 192pp, £12.99

Fred Wander was an Austrian Jew who survived more than 20 Nazi camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, between 1939 and 1945. He drew on his experiences to write this harrowing, impressive book, published in East Germany in 1971 and now available in English for the first time.

Less a novel than a collection of concise and haunting anecdotes, the book centres not on the life of the nameless first-person narrator but on a wide, vividly rendered range of other characters. These include the sardonic, dedicated nurse Karel and the curious, thoughtful storyteller Mendel Teichmann, who struggles to find the words to represent “each blow, each obscene humiliation” that he endures.

There are, surprisingly, frequent moments of brightness as the narrator memorialises his acquaintances and draws hope and wisdom from their stoicism, their camaraderie and their stories, stating emphatically that “there were wonders, too” amidst the misery. These wonders are counterbalanced by the brutality of camp life, to the extent that the narrator chastises himself for entertaining a false sentimentality. Such self-awareness adds a troubling extra dimension to this distressing, yet beautifully written book.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Gas gangsters