The Seventh Well
Fred Wander, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
W.W. Norton: 160 pp., $23.95
“TALL, gaunt, and burning with an inner flame,” Mendel Teichmann is a storyteller. Every other Sunday in the concentration camp, the prisoners are given an afternoon off from hard labor, and Mendel tells his stories: “Words had magical powers, they could conjure up an entire beautiful lost world -- a richly laid Sabbath table, the winsome loveliness of a Jewish girl, the heady aroma of sweet Palestine wine and raisin cake.” His stories help his friends remember what it was like to feel alive. They recite Baudelaire while pulling heavy loads in freezing weather. They plan their escape from the jackboots. "[T]he honest water of the seventh well will cleanse you,” Mendel recites from an ancient story, “and you will become transparent, like a well yourself, made ready for future generations, so that they will climb from the darkness, with a pure and a clear eye, and a light heart.” Fred Wander, who died in 2006 at age 90, was born in Vienna in 1916. He was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and survived 20 concentration camps. He was liberated at Buchenwald in 1945 and became a journalist and travel writer. “The Seventh Well” was first published in East Germany in 1970.
The Voyage of the Short Serpent
Bernard du Boucheron, translated from the French by Hester Velmans
Overlook Duckworth: 206 pp., $24.95
THE cardinal-archbishop sends a fledgling bishop on a mission to New Thule to save the colonists from heathendom: “You will ferret out and punish heresy, apostasy, infidelity, neglect of religious practice, perjury, gluttony, lusts both simple and sodomitic.” But nothing prepares the bishop or his crew for the voyage through ice, the hunger that forces them to eat the corpses of their shipmates, the devastation and desperation they find. “To describe the poverty of these wretches is to wish to share it,” the bishop reports back. And nothing prepares him for his own heresy. The settlers have mixed with the Inuit, and the bishop is horrified by the local sexual practices -- fornication in public, sharing of wives, trading of women for supplies. It is not long before he fathers a child (although he denies it) and is punished by the settlers for his hypocrisy. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” is more than a story of survival in the frozen north; it’s a parable on the perils of excessive morality, colonization and religious tyranny.
Trail of Crumbs
Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home
Grand Central: 374 pp., $24.99
KIM SUNEE was 3 when her mother left her on a bench at a market in South Korea. She was adopted by a young New Orleans couple and grew up loving Cajun food, but she and her adopted sister, the only Asians in their school, suffered the taunts of the local children. At age 18, she goes to study in France and feels much more comfortable there. She falls in love with a businessman, founder of the French perfume company L’Occitane, who is mired in a contentious divorce; he installs her in his beautiful house in Provence, as stepmother to his daughter. Seduced by the gorgeous life, she soon finds that she’s traded her identity for false security. She fights to understand what it means to be a woman and Asian. Strewn with tantalizing recipes from her travels (figs in red wine, spring pea salad with minted cream, crawfish bisque, kimchi), “Trail of Crumbs” (the title refers to the fistful of food she was found clutching after her mother left her) is also a cautionary tale. Lacking a strong sense of self, Kim floats along on love, travel and someone else’s money until she’s unable to live with herself. Beautiful food is her gift to others, all she feels she has to give.