Transit – Anna Seghers

transitAnna Seghers tells a story about war, but away from the bloody battlefields. Her narration is instead filled with the  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.

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The First Book I Read

Yesterday, 23 April 2015, was World Book Day. I also recently read an article in the May edition of ELLE about a writer’s first book – The Shining. It inspired him so much that he became a writer himself. I used to want to be a writer! But I figured just because I won’t get paid for writing doesn’t mean I still can’t enjoy writing.

Anyway, I want to share my first experience reading. Perhaps no one can remember for sure what their first book was. Most likely it was a spelling book with squeaky buttons on it. But I think more people would remember reading their first novel, or collection of short stories.

The first book I remember reading (in Vietnamese) is “Heart” by Edmondo de Amicis. The book is a collection of diary entries by Enrico, a 9-year-old boy who is growing up and learning. As a young reader, I related to Enrico’s stories and feelings, and found solace in his words. The stories are filled with love and kindness, as expected from a children’s novel that tries to reach out to its young readers as a moral compass. I don’t remember all the stories in “Heart”, but there are two that have stuck with me throughout my life.

“Heart” by Edmondo de Amicis in Vietnamese

Both of them concern the relationship between mother and son. In one entry, Enrico pastes a letter that his father wrote to him regarding a time when he accidentally said something rude to his mother. In the letter, his father instead of chastising Enrico for impolite, writes to him about his mother’s love for him. The letter was an ode to mother love and the irreplaceable role that mothers play in their children’s life. At the end of the letter, Enrico’s father urges him to apologize to his mother, because even though she understands that he didn’t mean to be impolite, it is important that he lets her know how much he cares for her and that he understands his mistake.

In another entry, Enrico observes a particularly ignorant classmate who doesn’t try hard in school and fails. When his mother comes to school to ask the teacher not to expel her son, Enrico notices the sadness and tiredness in his mother’s eyes, and reflects on the mother’s care and love for her son, even if he disappoints her greatly.

Both these stories had deep impact on my relationship with my mother. Amicis’s morals aligned closely with my cultural values, placing family at the centre of society and human development. Whereas this book served a moral bible for me when I was growing up, now it is a deep reflection of cultural tradition and how it affects a child’s growth. Carrying conservative role models, “Heart” no doubt is a very prominent educational book for my childhood.

Politics aside, I think with “Heart”, I found an early liking for books because I was able to go beyond comprehending words and being able to feel and appreciate writing. Just like how Enrico’s diaries made me feel greatly about family values, some great books I read later in life inspired me to think abstractly and above my own experiences. They have challenged me to imagine and construct ideas and emotions that I could not directly access in real life. Books also create complexities in human morality and thought, weaving imagery that allow us to think and feel.