Transit – Anna Seghers

transitAnna Seghers tells a story about war, but away from the bloody battlefields. Her narration is instead filled with theĀ  bureaucratic nightmare and the stagnation of people who are caught between borders and emotions. Even though far from violence, Transit’s characters still grapple with the effects of the World War that torments their lives and forces them away from the place they belong. Employing irony as a literary device, Seghers addresses the themes of belonging and the temporariness of refugees.

“Transit” starts out slowly, taking a long prelude to build up the ironies that remind readers of the lengthy bureaucracy in Kafka’s “Before the Law” and the near-impossible logic of Heller’s “Catch-22”. The situation that every refugee faces in the novel is the circular logic of the “transit visa”: they must prove that they are intending to leave Marseille, France, in order to get permission to stay. From this central issue, Seghers builds more layers of convoluted, often comical, loopholes in the bureaucratic system: “I have no money to pay the security deposit that you need to get an exit visa, and without the exit visa, not ticket for a passage on a ship.” So just like other refugees in Marseille, the protagonist sits idle, waiting for the right papers to gain rights to more papers. So, in contrast to its name, “transit visa” turns out to be a main stoppage for people’s movements. This juxtaposition highlights the stagnating, suffocating and lengthy wait that refugees endure. They were lucky enough to escape death and violence, but here in France, all stuck in a place that they don’t belong.

Every character that tells their story in the novel expresses nostalgia for their home. This recurring theme adds a melancholic to the irony. The concept of “home”, which means different things to each person, is expressed with sadness, yearning and longing. As the protagonist reflects, “I had forgotten that time stood still for these people once they left their homeland”, he recognizes the importance of “home” as an anchor for the people whose lives have been in constant flux and uncertainty. Marseille acts as a safe haven for people who have escaped, but everyone constantly feels like they are “a stranger, a foreigner”. In one man’s story, he details the formation of Lithuania, which used to be part of the Soviet Union. The changing borders of Europe during and after the War complicate people’s concept of “home”. While the man laments on the bureaucratic consequences of his home becoming a new country, we sense the complex emotions he endures. He feels nostalgic for a place that he no longer has the citizenship rights to be in, while it is also occupied by Nazis. Seghers details the mix of emotions of European refugees: tiredness from the turmoil of war, grief for the loss of peace and perplexity of the changing power and political borders. Perhaps the simplest central feeling that is shared among all is the longing to go back to their origins: “what could be more hellish? War? The war’s going to follow us across the ocean too. I’ve had enough of it. All I want is to go home.”

Each character’s story highlights the temporary settlement that refugees make do with. Marie is constantly running around, looking for someone she doesn’t know is dead; the doctor is waiting for Marie’s decision, and then couldn’t leave on his own either; and the protagonist’s dealing with multiple officers, travel bureaus, and friends who helped him make the right influence and bribes. There is a sense that everyone is in a hurry, but no one is going anywhere. The circles that they races around in illustrate the chaos that Europe was enduring. At the centre of the novel, Marie, Weidel, Seidler and the doctor’s lives are entangled in frustration and indecisiveness. They all know their lives are temporary in Marseille, but none of them are efficient at getting out. This intertwined plot demonstrates the lives of refugees: complicated and precarious.

Towards the end of the novel, a question dawned on me: “what language are these characters speaking?” They are Germans, Russians, etc. who are in France, dealing with Mexican, American, Brazilian etc. consulates. How are they navigating the language barriers? Anna Seghers conveys the compassion that people in crisis share, which fades away the cultural and language differences. Perhaps one passage sums up perfectly the humane message that Seghers shares: “Walking through this crowd for the last time, everything in me that could hope and suffer with other was awakened, and the part of me that drew a sort of bold pleasure from my own and other people’s desolation, and saw suffering as an adventure, dwindled away.