Walter Benjamin died in the town of Portbou, a refugee of the Second World War. He had made his way, by foot, to the border town between France and Spain, because he had obtained all but one of the necessary documents to leave Europe for America. He needed only to get to Lisbon. There he could board a ship. He did not have an exit visa to leave France. When he arrived in Portbou with a group of refugees, they were told that the border had closed that day; they would be sent back to Marseille the following morning. That night, in 1940, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine tablets in his hotel room. He had carried with him, on that arduous walk over the Pyrenees, a black suitcase containing his unfinished manuscript.
In 1944, Anna Seghers published Transit, a novel drawing on her own experience as a German Jewish refugee in Marseille trying to leave. She wrote the novel quickly, in 1941, after arriving in Mexico. Seghers was friends with Benjamin, and the story of his death appears briefly in the novel as gossip overheard in a cafe about an anonymous man. Gossip is an integral part of the narrative. The characters in Transit talk about nothing but leaving; about exit visas and transit visas and ships that have gone down after the lucky – or unlucky – few managed to board. It goes without saying: Transit is an eerily poignant read some eighty years after it was first published.
And yet, it is a hard novel to pin down. In the 2013 reissue (translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo), Transit is billed as an ‘existential, political, literary thriller’. This feels right. It is a thriller, yes, but it is a strange one. It might also be called a tragicomedy. Its brilliance has to with this unpindownable-ness. It has to do with the contrast between the genre elements of the novel and the stark, autobiographical realism grounding the narrative. With the way that Seghers artfully renders her characters – comically, tenderly, at times unsympathetically. In big and small ways, the novel resonates.
At the centre of it all is Seghers’ unnamed narrator. At the beginning of the novel, we find him sitting in a cafe. He invites us to sit with him. He would like to tell his story. He briefly outlines his escape from two camps – how he swam across the Rhine. It is in Paris, as Germany invades, that his second act begins. He agrees to deliver a letter to an author he does not know. When he arrives at the hotel, the landlady informs him that the author, named Weidel, is dead. The narrator is unmoved by the apparent suicide. Relentless tragedy has made him overfamiliar with suffering. What he feels, most often, is bored. The landlady, however, is troubled by the culpability of keeping the dead author’s suitcase, so the narrator offers to make sure it reaches Weidel’s widow in Marseille. On a whim, he signs the landlady’s receipt using a fake name. Having no documentation, the narrator later inherits an old refugee certificate with the name ‘Seidler’. In Marseille, he uses the certificate, along with the dead author’s documents, to obtain various visas. He becomes both ‘Seidler’ and ‘Weidel’.
It is here that the novel becomes oddly charged. I say ‘oddly’ because the narrative chronicles, almost claustrophobically, the act of waiting. Characters wait in consulate offices and embassies, they wait in bars and pizzerias, they wait in line for sardines, they wait for the mistral to pass as winter closes in. All this waiting has to do with a maddening bureaucratic loop the refugees find themselves in: having neither the appropriate documents to leave nor stay. They are caught in limbo. (References to Kafka and Beckett, in other writings on the novel, are apt. Waiting for Godot appeared about ten years later.) The plot of the novel – like its references to those invading and fleeing Europe over the last centuries – is circular. History, the novel suggests, is doomed to repeat itself. Indeed, it has. To be stateless and waiting is a particular kind of torture currently inflicted on people across the world.
In Transit, an underlying, strangely familiar anxiety hums. For there is the feeling, in the book, of being amid disaster globally, and palpable exasperation at the incompetence, at all levels of government, to deal with it. And yet daily life continues. Petty dramas persist. People are annoying. A cup of real coffee (a rarity) is soothing. The narrator watches a woman at a bar stuff her face with oysters, squandering the money she had intended to use for leaving, after having her visa rejected for the last time.
But there is another layer to the novel, one unexpected. Transit is also about the relationship between writing fiction, storytelling, and identity. The unnamed narrator assumes two different identities in a way that evokes the German trope of the Doppelgänger – the double. The dead author, Weidel, looms large over the narrative. His ghostly presence, like any author, is felt. On the first page, the narrator expresses his fatigue with thrillers and ‘suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger’. What thrills him, he explains, are the small things. He worries about boring us and others with his story. These self-reflexive asides are a way of grappling with the question of how to fictionalise a different part of a wide-scale tragedy. They seem to ask: how to fictionalise that which has happened (or is happening) collectively, but is felt individually? There is, of course, no answer to this question. The book itself is the answer.
Image © Jelle