Transit (Anna Seghers)
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
The "influx of refugees" is on everyone's lips. Long before a certain respiratory disease went viral, "waves" were being associated with refugees who supposedly "flooded" the West. In shockingly common parlance, people fleeing war, terror, or poverty are not to walk upright as individuals but to "flow" as a threatening collective. The dehumanisation of refugees is, of course, nothing new. It is probably as old as migration itself; certainly not younger than the novel Transit by Anna Seghers, first published in 1944.
Transit is set in 1942 and tells the story of an unnamed young man who fled from the Nazi regime to Paris. When German troops occupy France, the unnamed protagonist's flight continues to Marseille where he and many others are left stranded on their way out of war-ridden Europe. In Marseille, the last free seaport of France and hub of emigration, he witnesses an eccentric community of German emigrants who are caught in a slow bureaucratic machine waiting for a visa while their time and money are running out. A woman enters the protagonist's life and quickly becomes the object of his obsession. But while he starts to take root in his forced home Marseille, Marie, who is evermore restlessly hunting a phantom, escapes his grasp.
The events on which Transit is based impact European political and intellectual life up to this day. Many artists, authors, and philosophers fled Europe after the German invasion of France, often with a stop in Marseille. Among them was Anna Seghers who fled from Paris to Marseille and from there to Mexico. The novel pays tribute to Seghers' time in Marseille and to the people who had the same, or a worse fate. The rumours of the suicide of an author beyond the Spanish border are a reference to the death of Walter Benjamin. On the other hand, it is a memorial to the Mexican consul Gilberto Bosques who issued visas to 40,000 emigrants fleeing Nazi persecution, including Anna Seghers.
The refugees gathered in Transit, balancing on the tip of Europe, a small strip of land between ruthless fascism and the merciless sea, are struggling not only with Nazi collaborators and nature's elements; they are trying to maintain the precarious balance between optimism and realism on which their sanity and dignity rest. Where that balance would lie, whether it even exists, remains uncertain. Seghers pictures a situation so desperate that the line between rational behaviour and random buzz becomes blurred, that optimism and realism appear equally inappropriate; a situation so desperate that sanity is not an option.
While the novel’s whole personnel loses it one way or the other, one distant aim underlies all their endeavours: the Americas. Only an ocean lies between them and the safe haven of Mexico, the United States, Cuba. Being swept out of Europe for their religious beliefs or political ideals, the miserable heroes of Transit find their drain in Marseille's high street La Canebière that "washes" them into the old port and beyond.
The rhetoric of "refugee flows" and the images of refugees crowded together on frail vessels painfully appeal to the 21st century reader. But the comparison carries no further. The dehumanisation of which Transit sings is different than that seen and heard today. In this novel, individuals are not dissolved in a fluid collective. On the contrary, they are kept dry and neatly apart, each a file in a dusty consulate cabinet. The eponymous transit visa is only one of the many documents that the refugees need to obtain before they can board one of the few ships. Each document is issued by a different office, each takes weeks to be granted, and each depends on all the others. An exit visa from France is not granted without proof of a transit visa through Spain, Portugal, or the United States which in turn requires proof of an entry visa to Mexico or any other destination. And when the exit visa is finally issued, the entry visa has probably expired and the journey begins anew. But even those who receive all visas in time have not yet obtained the final rubber stamp by the port authority, which is subject to a valid residence permit. If the person willing to leave had not been allowed to stay, they are not permitted to leave either. The bureaucratic absurdity culminates in the protagonist's realisation that, in order to be permitted to stay, he has to prove his intention to leave.
Despite Seghers' very concrete experience, the persons she portrays remain abstract and hypothetical. Especially the unnamed protagonist and narrator is too contradictory to become a point of identification – calling himself a simple man while painting a sophisticated picture of Germany's transiting intellectual elite. It would, however, be unjust to say that Anna Seghers accidentally continues the dehumanisation that she describes. Rather than bringing to life real human beings, she depicts the marks and symbols of an unreal and inhumane condition that humans have created not too long ago, not too far away.
Transit takes us back to the time which gave rise to the international protection of refugees (the original 1951 Refugee Convention was specifically designed for people fleeing their country "as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951"). Whether the world is better equipped nowadays than it was 80 years ago to assist those in need, is debatable. But it is all too easy to read the book as a pamphlet against the international community's continuous failure adequately to accommodate refugees. This is a debate in which Anna Seghers could not have taken part in 1944. Transit is not the right book to let us draw conclusions about how the world of today may look like through the eyes of a refugee. Instead of changing the reader's perspective – the narrator is almost stereotypically European – it thoroughly turns the world, the object of this perspective, upside down. This is, of course, an impression only on today's audience who is used to Europe as the destination of migration rather than its origin. When Anna Seghers departed to Mexico, the Europe she left behind did not admit the hope that it would evolve into the peaceful and stable continent that we know. Transit is a document of its time and a reminder that the world turns at our hands, for the better or the worse.