[This page by Douglas Irving]
This 1951 short story is Anna Seghers’s first set entirely in Mexico (having previously only used Mexico as a frame for a story that fundamentally focuses on Germany, in The Excursion of the Dead Girls).
Crisanta is an indigenous Mexican orphan who is taken in by the González family. Thus, unlike countless other orphans, she has a mother figure in Señora González whom she can ‘cling to like a strong branch’, and a father figure in Señor González, who is crucial to the story’s narrative. Crisanta eventually outgrows this family when the eldest daughter gets married and there is no longer room on the mat for her to sleep. She is taken to Mexico City by well-meaning Señora Mendoza to start work there at a tortillería. On the bus journey she sees a boy get on the bus. Later the two young people will meet and start a relationship.
Crisanta is thrilled by everything the city has to offer. She delights in all the new things she experiences. It all seems so much better than her life with the Gonzálezes.
Just as things are getting difficult for Crisanta in the place she is staying in Mexico City, the boy from the bus turns up. Her relationship with this boy, Miguel, is set against a backdrop of attempted social change in Mexico, with the government’s literacy programme, and both Crisanta and Miguel attend evening classes to learn to read and write. While Miguel progresses, Crisanta struggles and eventually drops her class when it clashes with Miguel’s, thus missing out on this great chance of education. We also witness her marginalised from the political discussions of the menfolk, characteristic of Seghers’s portrayal of women.
Crisanta is utterly devoted to Miguel, seeing him as her superior. This character trait of hers is spelled out towards the end of the story: ‘She obeyed those who were stronger than her.’
When Miguel fulfils his ambition to leave Mexico, he goes with his friend, Pablo, rather than Crisanta. Abandoned and alone, Crisanta drifts for a time and falls into prostitution. She becomes pregnant, and drifts again, ending up living on a building site with a group of builders. Finally she is tracked down by Señora Mendoza, and ends up back with the Gonzálezes.
In a moment of self-awareness, Crisanta reflects that if she had overcome her sense of shame and turned to those who might have helped her, things might have been different. She might then have known the name of her child’s father.
Crisanta is a very simple story. In fact, though often dealing with adult themes, it reads like a childrens’ story much of the time. This simplicity encapsulates the innocence and naivety of Crisanta herself, and allows the reader to develop great empathy for her. Anna Seghers has created a deeply sympathetic figure in Crisanta, deserving of comparison with Thomas Hardy’s great creation, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. However unlike Hardy, Seghers manages in the end to offer the reader a glimmer of hope. This hope is not so much for Crisanta as for the future of her child, and in turn the future of her people. It is in Crisanta’s developing self-awareness that the power of this piece of revolutionary writing lies.
Seghers memorably begins her story by informing the reader that, in order to tell them about Mexico, she is not going to talk about the great male figures of Mexican history; ‘No, I won’t tell you about Juárez, Hidalgo or Morelos; I’ll tell you about Crisanta.’ In the character of Crisanta, Seghers has created an unforgettable Mexican figure representative of her nation, and in particular the working classes, the uneducated, and significantly, women. She is ultimately as much a heroic figure as any of the great historical figures Seghers mentions.
This important story merits reading and further study, both in terms of Seghers’s oeuvre and for those interested in the representation of women in 20th century history and politics. Seghers will later return to specifically Mexican subjects dealt with in Crisanta in greater depth in her 1967 story Benito’s Blue.
Anna Seghers, ‘Crisanta’, unpublished translation by Douglas Irving (2015)
Anna Seghers, Crisanta. Acht Geschichten über Frauen (Berlin: Aufbau, 1988)
Further Reading in English
Thomas W. Kniesche, ‘Mexico as a Model of How to Live in the Times of History: Anna Seghers’s Crisanta (1951)’, in Sophie Discovers Amerika. German-Speaking Women Write the New World, ed. by Rob McFarland and Michelle Stott James (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), pp. 219-229
Further Reading in German
Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie 1947-1983 (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003), pp. 127-28