(I challenge myself to write this review without using the word kafkaesque.)
Translated from German by Margo Bettauer Dembo
OK, so I’ve turned up late to my own #NYRBfortnight, but how could I not? Using Transit to bridge between that event and the #1944club was too good an opportunity to miss. Yet maybe inaccurately. The NYRB copyright page states 1951 and yet the German wikipedia page gives three dates: 1944 in English and Spanish with publication in a German newspaper following in 1947, thereafter the German book in 1948. Who to believe? It’s an absurdity worthy of the novel.
Now while I’m avoiding the adjective associated with the famous Czech writer, I have to tell you that I think of Transit, even though there’s no hint of fable in it, as a kind of Castle in reverse. Because while K is fighting bureaucracy to gain access to the castle, most of the characters in Transit are fighting bureaucracy in order to get out of the city of Marseille. Round and round in circles they go, from one embassy to another seeking to obtain the necessary tickets and transit visas, all with synchronised dates, otherwise their journey must be postponed, and they must begin all over again. The merry dance begins even before they find a ship to take them away from war-torn Europe and the Nazi advance. To obtain a residence permit, one must be able to prove that one that intends to leave …..
This is the first of many ironies. The second is that the unnamed protagonist arrives in Marseille with no intention of leaving (even though he too is fleeing the Nazis). He is there to deliver the papers of a dead man to that man’s wife. However, a misunderstanding causes the authorities to believe him to be the dead man, Weidel, and, because it is advantageous to do so, he assumes the dead man’s identity. Suddenly, all hurdles to leaving are lifted and, instead of battling to escape, he must battle to remain.
His determination is doubled when he meets and secretly falls in love with the mysterious Marie, a woman who has foregone her own opportunities to escape. Although involved with a doctor, Marie combs the streets, cafés and embassies of Marseille searching for the husband she left behind; a man who is reported to be alive and pulling strings to get her paperwork in place, even though he is never in the same place as she is.
As readers we know the answer why. And it is perhaps the greatest irony of the book.
While the love triangle of Marie, Weidel and the doctor provides a plot to move the novel forward, all other characters form part of what is called “the waiting-room of Marseille” in the novel’s blurb. Such an appropriate phrase, because that’s exactly what the city has been transformed into. While the refugees are waiting for their paperwork (and telling their own stories to whoever will listen, over and over again), the city’s inhabitants are waiting for the Nazi advance. It’s a hellish situation and one which reflects Seghers own experience escaping the Nazis with her family in 1941. So there’s probably more truth than fiction in all the absurdity. I find it remarkable that Seghers was able to transpose what must have been a traumatic experience into such an engaging and, at times humorous novel, just a couple of years later.
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 a long time already.”
The second reason for my late entry for #NYRBfortnight is that I had some waiting of my own to do – for the recently released DVD of the 2018 film of Transit. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles, so this is (currently) for German speakers only. It adheres very closely to Segher’s plot, with the necessary simplifications and shifts of emphasis required to convert a novel into 90 minutes of film. By far Christian Petzold’s most radical directoral decision is to dispense with the Nazi context and set it in modern Marseille. This is thought-provoking given our tumultuous times. I did find that stripping the historical context diminished the suspense somewhat, but found the relationship between Weidel and Marie much more developed and more moving. Ending with rolling credits to the sound of Talking Heads “Road to Nowhere” is masterly. Because that’s where we’re heading if we don’t learn the lessons from history.