Transit is true-life Kafka—an account of refugees struggling to escape the Nazi invasion of France via the port city of Marseille, where they are imprisoned not by blunt despotism, but by simple paperwork and bureaucracy. The narrator, unreliably named “Seidler”, is an escaped German POW who comes into possession of the papers of Weidel, an author who has killed himself, and who travels to Marseille to return them to his widow Marie, all while blissfully dismissive of the chaos enveloping France. Once at the port, he is quickly indoctrinated into the Catch-22s that govern life as an asylum seeker in Marseille. You can’t stay in the city unless you can prove you intend to leave; otherwise, you must leave, but where can you go? To prove you mean to depart, you must acquire a series of documents—a visa to enter, a visa to travel, a visa to exit, etc.—in a certain order, and fast enough so that they don’t expire before you have them all, and if they do, that’s on you and the bureaucracy takes no responsibility for its bullshit. You get the picture. The Nazi lust for power, coupled with the international community’s long and storied suspicions of refugees (as pertinent in World War Two as it is today), creates a system that purports to tell those under its purview, “You may cross these borders, but you must first do this”—effectively insulting the intelligence of the refugees, who know fully that the “this” is a task designed to be near-impossible, to trap them in an inconstant theatre of the absurd, to make them feel that they are welcome nowhere and might as well perish. The Eagles said it best: “You can check out anytime you like…but you can never leave!”
It is difficult to tell a story about an unmotivated character, steeped in ennui and world-weariness, since most readers demand a protagonist who wants something, for some reason, and who moves to achieve his/her goal with certain tactics that reveal just who (s)he is. I’m one of the few readers I know who empathizes with the guy who doesn’t ask for much, the objective and uninvolved observer, not passive but not desperate nor beholden to any plot machinations. Transit mostly succeeds in making Seidler this. He is a cipher, not caught up in the rush to get transit visas, only going through with the ridiculous process as a formality, adopting Weidel’s identity to facilitate the process for Marie and the doctor with whom she is having an affair, and to hint at a nuanced irony. In this Marseille, the deceased can be alive—in the minds of those who know him but aren’t up-to-date on his fate, as well as on paper. That a dead man has enough of a weight and an aura in this universe to gain transit visas more easily than most living people can is the novel’s most bitter indictment of WWII geopolitics. Nebulous identities are as free to cross borders as the papers and literature on which they are written, while our bodies imprison us and make us easy for governments to control and manipulate. Marie’s will to be unfaithful to Weidel (emotionally more than physically) with the doctor and with Seidler is made ethically dubious by her insistent belief that Weidel is alive and in Marseille, and this enrages Seidler even though he partakes in it and effectively betrays Weidel. Bodies do not matter in this political landscape because they are finite; only names and written/oral language are tangible.
Seidler’s objectivity makes him not a powerless spectator insomuch as it does a man who uses his power over Weidel’s identity in calculated, if amoral, ways. This makes it convenient for author Anna Seghers, a fervent Communist who based this novel on her own experiences as a Marseille refugee, to divert from Seidler/Weidel’s main thread and offer a panorama of immigrant lives. The most powerful anecdotes are the ones in which the characters have all the necessary papers and tickets and are ready to go, only to be swindled out of freedom at the last second—the conductor assured that the privilege of his profession will get him out of France easily, who succumbs to a heart attack over a bureaucratic fluke; not to mention, the extended family who stays behind for an elderly relative near death despite having everything in perfect order. Transit also has the peculiar quality of having benefits that on occasion work against its narrative. One would think that in this case of mistaken identity, Seidler would ease himself into the role of Weidel (if not outright embrace it, since we are talking about a less active narrator) and see how much he can get away with it, beyond the sphere of consuls and embassies. That he doesn’t, and that he merely sits in awe as Weidel shows his influence on the refugees’ lives beyond the grave, feels like a copout on Seghers’ part. The frenzy of characters, further, gives us no hint as to which figures are more important or more tertiary than the others, so that when Marie is introduced as a romantic waif flitting between cafés in search of Weidel, always running into Seidler by coincidence, the effect is hackneyed and saccharine and makes the novel’s ultimate focus on Marie and her adultery slightly jarring. None of this damages the novel’s power as a timeless testament to just how physical politics is—in place, in body, in language.