"Two men fight over a woman, but the woman in fact loves a third man, who is already dead." This is how Anna Seghers described the chain of unrequited love that is the core of her 1944 novel Transit (English translation: Transit Visa). But Seghers' plot description barely scratches the surface of the book, which is really an existential novel on the ennui of the human condition. The characters in Transit can scarcely contain their boredom as they listen to each others' stories of death, imprisonment and harrowing escape.
Transit is Seghers' best full-length novel (the novella Ausflug der toten Mädchen was her greatest work of fiction). And Transit may be the greatest Exilroman ever, written as Seghers and her husband were making their way to Mexico. This is perhaps her least tendentious novel even though it was written in the midst of war; Transit deals with timeless themes and the ancient dusty seaport of Marseilles, the locus of the novel, has endured numerous wars and will survive this one as well. Yes, the narrator, an anonymous 27-year old German, is an anti-fascist who escaped a Nazi concentration camp. But he is hardly the Marxist proletarian hero we encounter in Seghers' later socialist-realist novels such as Die Entscheidung. He is merely a survivor, who is buffeted by the sweep of war and through an accident of fate is brought together briefly with woman, who, momentarily, allows him to envision a happier future.
The title Transit has a double meaning. It refers to the state of passing-through, which is the fate of the refugee that Seghers shared with millions of other. It also refers to the bureaucratic holy grail of documents - a visa permitting safe passage through a territory (Spain, in this case) to a port of exit (in this case, Lisbon). From Lisbon, freedom and safety beckon in Martinique, Brazil, Mexico and America. In the novel, characters come together over pizza and rosé to discuss strategies for dealing with the foreign consulates. The long stretches of boredom just waiting and plotting are occasionally interrupted by police raids and those lacking the proper documents disappear into internment camps. A lucky few obtain the myriad documents, visas, official consular stamps and a berth on the occasional ships leaving Marseille, but they always show up again the cafes of the old port: they were forced off the ship by others with higher authority, or, in once case, they made it all the way to Cuba but lacked the proper stamp on a paper to get off the ship. Even the narrator's lover, Marie, who finally gets passage to freedom, never reaches her destination since her boat, we learn in the first sentence of the novel, was sunk by a German submarine.
Marseille is a giant waiting room (Lion Feuchtwanger gave his exile trilogy the title Der Wartesaal) where, paradoxically, only those who can document that they are leaving are permitted to stay. This purgatory is captured in the "legend of the dead man" related by one of the refugees:
Er wartete in der Ewigkeit, was der Herr über ihn beschlossen hatte. Er wartete und wartete, ein Jahr, zehn Jahre, hundert Jahre. Dann bat er flehentlich um sein Urteil. Erkonnte das Warten nicht mehr ertragen. Man erwiderte ihm: "Auf was wartest du eigentlich? Du bist don shoch längst in der Hölle.
(He waited in the hereafter to learn what the Lord had decided about him. We waited and waited, one year, ten years, one hundred years. Then he finally begged for the decision. He was told:" What are you waiting for? You've already been in hell for some time.)
It is this agony of waiting, of not knowing, of never arriving and never returning, that Seghers brilliantly captures in Transit. It is an agony in some ways worse than the horrors of war.