Born in Germany in 1900 to a Jewish family, Anna Seghers, fled from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. In 1941, Seghers and her family sailed from Marseille to Mexico in 1941 where she began to write Transit, a novel inspired by her experiences as a refugee, shortly after her arrival. The novel was first published in English in 1944 but did not appear in German until 1948.
As Transit opens, our unnamed narrator, a young German man sitting in a pizzeria in Marseille, invites us to listen to his story, the whole story from start to finish. As we join him for a slice of pizza and a glass of rosé, he begins his tale. Having escaped first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from a work camp near Rouen, our narrator makes his way to Paris. Whilst in the capital, he is asked by an old friend to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel, but when he arrives at the man’s hotel, he encounters a puzzle. Weidel, a writer, has committed suicide leaving a suitcase containing a manuscript and some letters. One letter is from the Mexican Consulate in Marseille, claiming that a visa and travel funds await Weidel there; the other is from Weidel’s estranged wife urging him to come to Marseille. Our narrator takes the suitcase and ultimately decides to travel to the city with the intention of handing the contents over to the Consulate. Moreover, he hopes to evade the Nazis by losing himself in the strange and unknown city of Marseille, a place on the edge of Europe:
The last few months I’d been wondering where all this was going to end up – the trickles, the streams of people from the camps, the dispersed soldiers, the army mercenaries, the defilers of all races, the deserters of from all nations. This, then, was where the detritus was flowing, along this channel, this gutter, the Canebière, and via this gutter into the sea, where there would at last be room for all, and peace. (pg. 35, NYRB Classics)
Whilst en route to Marseille, our narrator acquires refugee papers in the name of Siedler. Consequently, when he tries to hand Weidel’s case to the Mexican Consulate, the officials assume Weidel is Siedler’s pen name and that the two men are one and the same person. In an effort to secure some breathing space, our narrator goes along with this assumption and begins to look for Weidel’s wife.
Our narrator, however, soon realises that Marseille is a place of departure; no one asks where you have come from, only where you are going to. In fact, the Marseille Prefect will only allow visitors to stay in the city if they can prove they are making arrangements to obtain all the necessary documentation for departure. In order to leave, a refugee requires a visa to enter the country of their destination, transit visas for all countries he/she will pass through on the journey, and an exit visa granting permission to leave France. Moreover, one or more of these visas may be dependent on other documentation: a birth certificate, lack of convictions or black marks on the traveller’s character, medical certificates…the list is endless. And each visa is valid only for a discrete period of time; if any one of these documents expires while others are being processed, the traveller must start the application sequence all over again.
One of the most compelling (and frightening) aspects of this novel is just how effectively it conveys the maze of bureaucracy and red tape refugees must navigate in order to secure a passage from Marseille. New requirements and regulations can be introduced at any time, dashing the hopes of many refugees. In this passage, our narrator listens to the experience of just one of the many refugees he encounters, a man hoping to travel to Brazil:
“I had everything; I even had the eye doctor’s certificate. And eventually the consulate did open. I even reached the room of the consul, but they said they had just received a telegram, and now they were asking for proof of Aryan ancestry. And so, in accordance with the laws of this country, I have to go back to my department of origin…” (pg. 219)
Transit pulls the reader into a Kafkaesque nightmare, a ghostly world populated with grotesque and detached officials passing judgement of the future of humanity without a care for the plight of individuals. The futility of this never-ending paper chase is vividly realised:
Of course, you’re also familiar with the cavernous Prefecture and the horde of frizzy-haired bureaucratic goblins that work there, digging out dossiers from the walls of shelves with their little paws and red-lacquered claws. And then, depending on whether you’ve hit a well-disposed goblin or a malicious one, you leave the cave either happy or gnashing your teeth. They gave me a magic paper, a new invitation to appear at a later date. They indicated that a general proof of departure wasn’t enough, and that I would only receive a limited-residence permit if I brought along specific proof that I had booked passage on a ship, the date when my ship would leave, and a transit visa, giving me permission to pass through the United States. (pgs. 100-101)
As our protagonist wanders the streets of Marseille, he encounters a variety of characters, each one memorably realised even if we glimpse them for just the briefest of moments. Marseille is a city of lost and frenzied souls forever waiting in line at various Consulates and Offices, streaming in and out of the bars and cafés. In some respects, there is a ghostly quality to their existence; trapped in limbo they long for a chance to touch the elusive horizon which remains tantalisingly out of reach. And our narrator himself is torn; should he stay and try to establish a life in the South of France, or join the others in a desperate quest for a place on a ship? His thoughts and mood change just as quickly as the fickle Marseille weather.
Finally, our protagonist spots a woman desperately searching the cafés for someone, and he is drawn towards her:
She searched through the entire café, going from table to table. She came back to my section, pale with despair. But then she immediately began the search all over again. She was alone and helpless in this herd of escaped demons. She came close to my table. Her gaze now rested on me. I thought: She’s looking for me, who else? But already her eyes had moved elsewhere. She made her way out. (pg. 83-84)
I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot, save to say that our narrator believes his future is inextricably linked to that of this woman, and he continues to pursue her.
At the heart of this novel lie questions of identity and destiny. Before our narrator arrives in Marseille he feels lost; in a way, he has lost something so fundamental that he doesn’t know who he is any more. Moreover, this feeling is only heightened by the shifting sense of identity he experiences on being sucked into the Marseille transit process. If only he really were Weidel, perhaps then he would feel anchored by a sense of reality:
The web of questions was so dense, so cleverly thought out, so unavoidable, that no detail of my life could have escaped the consul, if only it had been my life. I’m sure they’d never had a questionnaire so blank and empty on which they tried to capture a life that had already escaped this world and where there was no danger of getting tripped up by contradictions. All the details were in order. What did it matter that the entire thing wasn’t true? All the subtleties were there, giving a clear picture of the man who was to be given permission to leave. Only the man himself wasn’t there. (pgs. 181-182)
I found Transit to be an utterly absorbing and haunting novel, one that burrowed its way into my mind where it feels set to remain for some time. Siedler/Weidel’s story is a little like a spiral. Once in Marseille, our protagonist gets caught up in the circuit of bureaucracy that governs his status in the city. He continues to encounter the same characters again and again as he shuttles from one café or pizzeria to another, consuming several glasses of rosé and slices of pizza as he goes. On the surface, the narrative might sound a little repetitive – and to some extent it is – but I wonder if Seghers is deliberately using this circular structure to emphasise the seemingly never-ending chase and exasperating nature of life as a refugee.
On a deeper level, this novel also contains various references to mythology and to biblical themes – and with a nod to Weidel’s unfinished fable-like manuscript, the one he left in the suitcase, Transit’s story could be seen as possessing an existential and allegorical quality. Life is an impenetrable forest, ‘a forest for adults.’
Whichever way you look at it, Transit is a truly remarkable book, one that draws the reader into its unforgettable world.
I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. I bought Transit last year on the recommendation of a bookseller, and I’ve just discovered that a few other bloggers have reviewed it too. Here are some links to other reviews from Guy, Kaggsy and Tony Malone.
Transit is published in the UK by NYRB Classics, tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo. Source: personal copy.