Steinzeit; Stone Age

[This page by Douglas Irving]

Steinzeit; Stone Age (1975/77)

This novella by Anna Seghers, first published in Sinn und Form in 1975 and in book form in 1977, has been described as ‘the most significant of her later work’. It is a visceral portrayal of the psychological disintegration of a Vietnam War veteran who has returned to America and is unable to re-enter conventional society. Instead, he hijacks a plane and goes to ground in the Colombian jungle, entering into an ever-tightening web of suspicion and self-absorption which will ultimately lead to his own destruction.

We are reminded in this tale of Seghers’s global perspective as she effectively conveys the mental torment experienced by those who had participated in the horrors of the Vietnam War. As with Crossing, Seghers uses her writing to reflect on wider themes of civilization, the inference being that actions of war such as Vietnam are ultimately futile and cause great damage to those involved – implicitly, she reinforces her committed pacifist stance. The global perspective balances with the concentration on individual characters’ connectedness, interrelatedness and effects on one another. Her concern is with the individual, first and foremost.

Once again we have a male protagonist who is anything but a traditional hero. The reader gets the impression that this is a man on the edge in need of genuine psychological help. Seghers presents in the character of Gary someone who is struggling to find their place in the world. The uncompromising ending to the story reinforces her critique of a Western society that allows individuals such as Gary to pursue their own ends at the expense of community and collaboration, as evinced by the indigenous tribes of Latin America, which provide a magic moment of relief for Gary midway through the story.

Seghers’s writing in Stone Age is particularly succinct and cool. You get the impression that she has carefully considered the weight of every single word, not one of which is wasted. Through her heavily-controlled minimalist writing style she searingly presents Gary’s inevitable demise. There is no room for sentiment here; it is the very brutality of Seghers’s writing which brings home to the reader the brutality of the process Gary is going through, post-Vietnam War.

English Translation

Stone Age, unpublished translation by Douglas Irving (2014)

Further Reading in English

Ernest Schonfield, ‘The Vietnam Veteran in Anna Seghers’s Steinzeit (Stone Age, 1975)’ in Violence Elsewhere 1: Imagining Distant Violence in Germany 1945-2001, ed. by Clare Bielby and Mererid Puw Davies (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2024), pp. 104-26

Further Reading in German

Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie 1947-1983 (Aufbau: Berlin, 2003), pp. 304-06