by Anna Seghers; translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo
NYRB Classics; 280 p.
Anna Seghers, one the most respected and important German authors of the 20th century, wrote perhaps the earliest account of the Nazi concentration camps. That book, The Seventh Cross, tells a similar story to her own time in a camp. Now, NYRB Classics has released a sequel of sorts. Transit tells the story of a lesser-known component of the Second World War, the displacement of millions of refugees. While it pales in comparison to the genocide, the displacement of millions of refugees signified its own traumatic experience which ended up changing the map of postwar Europe. Seghers’s unnamed narrator escapes first from a concentration camp in Germany and then from one in Rouen, France. He finds his way to Marseilles, a port city, which in this era of refugees desperate to leave transforms into a bustling town of the lost. The narrator feels a sort of modernist ennui until he finds himself a hustler in the shady business of visas and departures. There, he begins to create a glimpse of a solid life while remaining on the precarious ground of a displaced person. He loves, he attaches himself to a family and friends, all with an awareness of the inherent transience of his situation and consequently life in general.
The book begins with talk of a downed ship of refugees, and then the narrator proclaims his manifesto:
I’d like to tell someone the whole story from beginning to end. If only I weren’t afraid it was boring. Aren’t you thoroughly fed up with such thrilling stories? Aren’t you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by hair, about breathtaking escapes? Me, I’m sick and tired of them. If something thrills me today, then maybe it’s an old worker’s yarn about how many feet of wire he’s drawn in the course of his long life and what tools he used, or the glow of the lamplight by which a few children are doing their homework.
Segher grounds her story with this sentiment, and yet proceeds to undermine its thrust immediately. Instead of something mundane like wire or homework, she plunges us deep into the lives of desperate people, fleeing from the all encompassing dark fog of Nazism. This is part of the tension of the book and the artist. Thrills lose their glamour when they play a central role in life, when they aren’t choices, but representations of external servitude. The artist doesn’t want to live under a totalitarian regime in the one place left to them, their creativity, but they cannot run away from reality either.
Segher carefully documents the tedious details of visa bureaucracy in a manner that would make Kafka proud, but she also finds the humanity in the different shades of foreigners, of refugees, of people yearning to be free, of an old couple holding each other’s wrinkly hands, waiting for departure. Segher sees this group as delusional, but properly delusional given the state of society. Each person lies to themselves about this ship, or that visa, or this favor they can use at a consulate, but nothing ever comes to fruition. Like heaven, only those who are gone can really know anything about it, which cannot help the living. On its own, this story is an important untold story of the refugee situation in Second World War-era Europe, but in its own grappling with its allegorical nature, Segher transforms the book into a masterpiece. Seghers balances these two impulses in telling her story with an existential, theological layer. The situation of these refugees mimics the course of the human soul. Toward the end of the novel, Seghers tells a story that captures much of the conflict in the book:
What can I expect here? 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.’
The threat of hell loses its sting if you are already there. On the other side she notes, “A couple of women mending nets looked quite lost in the huge square. I had never seen them doing this before. I’m sure that I haven’t seen most of the really important things that happen in this city. To see the things that matter, you have to feel that you want to stay.” This insight serves as both a description of the refugee life, as well as a veiled criticism of religious striving. If we so obsess with what comes next, we are bound to miss our lives in the now. But what do you do when the now is only a litany of horrors?
The relationship of the story itself to its inherent allegorical proportions engulfs the novel. The situation of the narrator as an eternal wanderer brings him to question the nature of life, of the religious concept of a world to come, if only through veils. What does it mean to wait your whole life for something that you will hope will happen in a world you’ve never seen? Does this persistent waiting sap this life of all meaning, or give it the meaning it lacks? Segher never feigns to answer these weighty issues, rather, she uses them create tension. In doing so, Segher’s story highlights the strange relationship of allegory to reality. One the one hand the allegorical power of any story depends on its ability to illumine an aspect of actual life, and yet, it must overwhelm our version of life with something greater – be it good or evil. This tension makes allegories and allegorical writing teeter towards the childish and exaggerated.
Segher then, feels the push towards allegorization, in of itself a push towards transcendence, towards something else other than we experience right now, in front of us, but never wholly gives in to this impulse. Seghers, in basing her story on actual experiences, crafts an often more arresting and poignant narrative than a simple allegory. In her ability to live in ambivalence, much like her narrator, Seghers creates an unforgettable experience of the transience of life.