You know the fairy tale about the man who died, don’t you? He was waiting in Eternity to find out what the Lord had decided to do with him. He waited and waited, for one year, ten years, a hundred years. He begged and pleaded for a decision. Finally he couldn’t bear the waiting any longer. Then they said to him: ‘What do you think you’re waiting for? You’ve been in Hell for a long time already.’
That pretty much sums up Transit by Anna Seghers but I will babble on about it a bit more.
The year is 1940. The city, Marseille, France. It is the place all the refugees go to try and leave Europe. If you are not a resident of Marseille you are not allowed to stay. But unless you have all the proper papers you aren’t allowed to leave either. It is a bureaucratic nightmare that would suit Kafka well. In order to leave the country one practically needs reams of papers, transit visas from all the countries the ship you might end up taking could possibly stop at, a visa for the country you plan to actually go to, a visa to leave Europe, and all sorts of other papers. By the time a person gets the final visa signed off on, the first one has expired and the process must start all over again. The people who have money or know someone who knows someone are the ones most likely to get through and actually leave. But even once you have all the papers, getting a berth on a ship is darn near impossible too. The more desperate a person is to leave, the more difficult it is to fulfill all the requirements. The bureaucrats do not like desperation and fear.
Through this city of people who are perpetually in transit, we follow a man who calls himself Seidler. He is a German who has escaped from a German concentration camp only to end up in a French camp from which he also eventually escaped. Through the help of a former girlfriend he gets a refugee certificate that allows him to go to Marseille. On the way he stops in Paris where he runs into someone he knows and agrees to deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel. But when Seidler arrives at Wedidel’s flat he finds the man had committed suicide the day before. The landlady gives him Weidel’s possessions in a suitcase. These possessions include the manuscript of an unfinished novel. The letter he was to deliver is from Weidel’s wife who is in Marseille waiting for him where everything has already been arranged for his departure.
Seidler goes on to Marseille to the Mexican consulate where Weidel had a visa waiting for him. Seidler tries to give them the suitcase to give to Weidel’s wife but they won’t take it. Somehow everyone thinks that he is Weidel.
The Binnets, the family of the woman who got him the refugee certificate help him find a room. Everyone assumes he will begin the process of leaving but Seidler doesn’t want to leave. All he wants to do is stay. The Binnets have a farm outside the city and he would like nothing more than to get a job working on the farm. But this is impossible because he doesn’t have a resident permit, nor will anyone issue him one. So he starts going to the consulates, pretending to be Weidel, which he says is his pen name. A friend helps him get a certificate saying as much.
Because Seidler doesn’t want to leave he is not frustrated by all the waiting and hoops he must jump through. He is quite content until he begins seeing a woman wandering through all the cafes looking for someone. Who is she looking for? Seidler wants it to be him but it is her husband she is looking for, a man she never finds but is always certain to the last will suddenly appear.
How is it a book about waiting, a book about being in perpetual transit is not dull? I mean how much can one read about the stories of people waiting in line, about their frustrations over not having the right signature or the required number of photographs? How many cafes and cups of fake coffee? I don’t know how Seghers does it but I wasn’t bored for a second. Maybe it’s because the book has such a meditative quality to it. Maybe it is because there is something compelling in the stories of those stuck in transit. Or maybe it’s the absurdity of it all and the belief, like the man in the fairy tale, that it can’t go one forever, that eventually the waiting has to end it, that it has to end in a good way and not all have been for nothing.
Seghers wrote the novel during her own flight from Europe in 1942. Born in Mainz on Rhine in 1900, Jewish and an ardent Communist, she fled to France and lived in exile there for a number of years before it too was no longer safe. Though she wrote Transit in German it was first published in English and Spanish in 1944. It did not appear in German until 1948. Seghers was a fascinating woman whose belief in Communism brought her many troubles and disappointments. The Jewish Women Encyclopedia has a well written and detailed biography of her.
Transit was the May book in my NYRB Classics subscription. Another win for the NYRBs. Danielle, who also has a subscription, posted about the book recently too and also liked it very much.