Updated on May 19, 2015
20. ‘Transit’ by Anna Seghers
Calling a book ‘Kafka-esque’ should be a compliment, since Kafka’s writing is brilliantly simple and, at the same time, piercing and insightful, but in the case of ‘Transit’ Anna Seghers has managed to capture the despair and pointlessness of Kafka’s worlds, without quite pulling off the intrigue.
‘Transit’ tells the story of a Nazi concentration camp escapee, fleeing from Paris and the advancing German army, with only a battered old suitcase that once belonged to a writer named Weidel. The narrator ends up in the port of Marseilles, where he sinks into a world of meaningless, circular bureaucracy, which all the refugees in the city must fight their way through to secure passage on an elusive ship to take them abroad to safety.
There is a lot that’s done well here, most notably the accounts of the processes of government. Refugees must obtain a visa to stay in the city, where they need to be to get a visa to leave. There are queues and forms, interviews and appeals, policemen and smug government workers who hold the power of asylum over everyone and can essentially dish it out as they see fit. The hopelessness and futility of it all is Seghers’ primary message, and it comes across very powerfully.
My problem lies with the narrator. I don’t like him. At least in Kafka’s books the protagonist is trying to achieve something. Sure, he’s battling a monolithic system that he cant hope to beat, but at least he’s kicking it in the ankles. Seghers’ protagonist arrives in Marseilles, accidentally gets a permit to stay and then simply doesn’t bother to do anything he’s meant to. He gives up before he even begins, deciding that he’ll probably just stay there (which he isn’t allowed to do) or go and get a job in the countryside (which he also isn’t allowed to do). How, I ask you, am I meant to root for this man, when he doesn’t even give a shit?
Still, even though I found myself wishing he’d just get arrested (mainly because there were thousands of people in the city who apparently wanted to live more than he did), the strokes of luck keep coming for the narrator. Entirely without his trying, people start to assume that he is the writer, Weidel, and he gets all sorts of special treatment because of it. Those documents that everyone else is killing themselves to get hold of just fall into his hands, and what does he do? He lets them expire, preferring to spend his days chasing after Weidel’s estranged wife, who he sees frequently because people keep telling her they’ve just seen her husband sitting in a cafe or walking down a street. They haven’t. It’s our good-for-nothing narrator. And nobody works it out.
For all of this book’s merits (a captivating setting and period of history), I couldn’t get over the gaping hole at its centre: the narrator. He holds together a false identity entirely by accident, lies to everybody he meets and does nothing to try to save himself. It’s like he’s woken up in the night, his arm dead because he’s lying on it, but rather than making an effort to turn over he just sighs loudly and goes back to sleep.
“I’d like to tell someone the whole story from beginning to end. If only I weren’t afraid it was boring.”
I believe this one came from NetGalley. I did a bit of browsing and was impressed by the blurb. I wish the book had lived up to it!
Want to find out for yourself? Buy the book and let me know what you think.