Undoubtably, the best book I have read this year, Anna Seghers’ Transit is lyrical and beautiful, restless and meandering.
Surgical in its examination of the gap between our lives as we want them to be and what we are really capable of achieving.
I’d always enjoyed unraveling tangled yarn, just as I had always enjoyed messing up neat skeins of yarn.
It is the early part of the War, the Nazis running rampant across Europe, scattering multitudes as they go. Seghers’ narrator has drifted as far as he can and now clings to the edge of the continent, the seaport of Marseille, surrounded by similarly adrift refugees of a variety of nations, some still in existence, some not. They spend their days trailing from consulate to travel agent to embassy, in search of the right combination of travel documents, exit and transit visas.
All these casual chance encounters, these senseless, repeated meetings depressed me with their stubborn unavoidability.
This never-named young man is a German who has twice escaped from the camps, once in his homeland and once in France, possessing only fraudulent documents including a set belonging to a writer named Weidel who committed suicide as Paris fell. These comprise the necessary papers to get him out of the trap and a mysterious unfinished manuscript. To further complicate matters, Weidel’s wife arrives in the company of a doctor who has safe passage to Mexico, yet she is anxious to follow rumoured sightings of her husband. It isn’t long before our narrator is putting his full efforts in to getting the doctor out of the city, not altogether 100% altruistically:
I just had the feeling I was about to take something away from him that wasn’t really his.
And while he flirts with the romance of the situation,
All these ordinary little things together would make a powerful whole: our life together.
He can’t escape the intrusion of a certain realism:
I would make sure that she would never again fall prey to some guy like me.
The bureaucracy the refugees have to contend with is Kafkaesque, labyrinthine and deadly. Paperwork must be gathered in the correct order and submitted before the ship is due to sail or back they go to the start. Even completing all the steps is not enough to guarantee passage and the U-boats wait patiently beyond the harbour. The paranoia and rumour-mongering as people are seized by the authorities, escape, or decide to return to whatever ‘home’ remains builds to a palpable collective fear. And as he alternates between activity and waiting, the narrator can’t help but examine the life of the exile, the pull between a desire to be on your way and that of nurturing even the shallow roots that can be put down in a short time. His story perfectly combines the tedium of waiting to leave, with the thrill of not knowing where you could end up:
…where the sky and the sea touched, the thin line that is more exciting to people like us than the wildest, most jagged peaks of the craggiest mountain chains.
This story is essential reading. As fresh today, with the UNHCR estimating that 50 million people were displaced in 2014, as it was when it was completed in 1942. Not a tale that is often told when we hear stories of WWII, but one that must have been common, if forgotten once the refugees met their destination and resumed the lives that they had been forced to put on hold.
If you are interested in reading Transit, may we suggest sourcing it via your local independent bookstore? One of our favourites is News From Nowhere in Liverpool.