Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers
“For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia
In the past two years, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe (and now across the world) has been the most widespread since World War II. It has challenged the ability of free nations to balance compassion with security and has changed the political climate to the extent that xenophobia and populist dissent are now threatening to overrun the free world. In reading the fiction of the mid-twentieth century, we find that these issues are nothing new. Indeed, in this fiction we can learn important lessons and gain new perspectives on the challenges that continue to face us today.
Anna Seghers’ novel draws on her own experiences as a refugee from Germany in the 30s, when simply existing as a person was a crime and crossing borders for freedom (and basic survival) was a Herculean task that could lead to capture, murder, or suicide. Transit is narrated by a man who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and is seeking to live a life of peace in France. He soon discovers that this is impossible, as he becomes part of a group of refugees trying to escape France before the arrival of the German army.
The resulting bureaucratic nightmare requires refugees to have an endless amount of papers and visas, which are nearly impossible to attain. One must have a resident visa merely to reside temporarily in France, and only on the condition that one is looking to leave. In order to leave, one must have a visa to enter the country of refuge. However, one cannot simply travel to that country without first stopping at other countries in-between, either by land, air, or sea. Therefore, one also needs transit visas for each stop in-between. By the time a person can obtain the proper entry visas, their transit visas become out-of-date, and vice versa. Since it takes so long to obtain these myriad visas, one risks out-staying a resident visa, for which one must continually re-apply, but which are perhaps the most difficult to obtain.
It is a Kafkaesque nightmare that leads the narrator to adopt the persona of a fellow refugee — a writer who has recently committed suicide (possibly a reference to Seghers’ acquaintance Walter Benjamin?). As the narrator goes in circles trying to either stay in France or obtain the proper visas to flee to Mexico, he runs into the girlfriend of the deceased writer, who is currently searching for her lover, whom she doesn’t realize is dead.
And yet although all this transit whispering made me feel quite miserable, it was amazing to think that even though thousands, no, hundreds of thousands, had died in the flames of the air raids and the furious attacks of the Blitzkrieg, there were many more who were born quite without being noticed by the consuls. They hadn’t asked for letters of transit, hadn’t applied for visas; they were not under the jurisdiction of this place. And what if some of these poor souls, still bleeding physically and spiritually, had fled to this house, what harm could it do to a giant nation if a few of these saved souls, worthy, half-worthy, or un-worthy, were to join them in their country — how could it possibly harm such a big country?
Lost in all this paperwork is the humanity of the refugees, who are shuffled around like so many cattle, often rounded up for little or no reason and sent back to concentration camps. Our narrator gives us an idea of the constant fear and despair felt by these men and women who discover that their only crimes are being alive and trying to cross borders to survive. The novel is written as a narrative told by the unnamed narrator at a cafe, which suggests that he is not only adopting the persona of a writer, but also has become a storyteller himself, spinning his tale for those of us who have never experienced this kind of madness. In that sense, to paraphrase Adorno, writing has become a homeland for both Seghers and the narrator, who slowly comes to embrace a revolutionary point-of-view as he lives the life of the dead writer seeking asylum.
Anna Seghers, 1935, at the International Congress of Writers. Photographer Gisèle Freund said Seghers had “the eyes of a dreamer.”
We readers understand, too, that fiction is more than the communication of facts, but a place of refuge for the weary — a point of contact where disparate (and desperate) people might embrace a humanity denied to them by certain social or political restrictions, might cross boundaries and barriers that are impossible to cross otherwise, and might build a community of shared experiences that reflect the values of men and women who are so often lost in the system. In short, fiction gives voice to the voiceless, and puts a human face on complex geopolitical issues such as the current refugee crisis.
Seghers’ novel remains just as relevant today as it was when first published in 1944. As Peter Conrad writes in his introduction: “It is sobering and alarming to rediscover this book: what Seghers saw as an emergency has now become what we call normality.” In reading this novel, we come to value not only the importance of providing refugees with comfort and compassion, but also of the essential need for nations to work together to maintain free and open borders, especially in the face of forces (sometimes violent) that might threaten to destroy that international ideal.