Monday 8 April 2024


Anna Seghers' Transit has been in transit on the floor for several months, beside my chair. When I bought it I read a paragraph and sensed a depth I wasn't in the mood for. Then the other day, now that it's Spring, I picked it up, read the first few pages and found that, despite the moment in history — Europe evacuating ahead of Hitler's armies— there was a lightness of touch, almost a casualness. The narrator, who's young, German, but not Jewish, makes his way to Marseille, the only open port in France, seething with refugees looking for exit visas, transit visas, boat tickets, friendly folk in consulates, lost husbands and wives, manuscripts in suitcases, trying to get to Colombia, Mexico, Martinique, America, via Spain or Casablanca or Lisbon, anywhere out of this world. Transit is a seething surface; depth is optional or a distraction in late 1940 in Europe. People meet in cafés, eat pizza, marvel at pizza, pluck coffee beans out of barley to have one real cup a week, drink rosé on the nights they serve alcohol, talk through where they are and where they might go, under which name, hide behind newspapers when they don't want to talk, change their mind and their name, if it suits. Every ship might be the last ship, and if you do get on, to Brazil or Mexico, it might sink, and then all there'd be, if you're fortunate, is this permeable story, persistently in flux, which you have told. As the narrator says to the American consul, 'all those writers who were in the concentration camp with me, who escaped with me, it seems to me that we lived through these most terrible stretches in our lives just so we could write about them: the camps, the war, escape and flight.'

There's a strange levity about this. Anna Seghers herself left Germany in 1933, then was interned in France because she was a communist and a jew; she escaped from the camp and left Europe with her husband and two children, from Marseille, in 1940. She went to Mexico where she wrote this book, framing it as a kind of thriller with a young male narrator who uses, by accident really, the identity of a writer who has committed suicide.

The narrative thread is what you need to wend your way through the bureaucratic flux of transit. Any story will do, there are as many stories as there are refugees, stories of escape and documentation, boats that sink and boats that don't leave. Less dark than Kafka, less esoteric than Borges, and far less dated than we would like, now, in 2024, when travel is closer to travail than ever, and the world is filled with displaced people, 110 million at the last count.

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