Monday, August 15, 2016

WITMonth Day 15 | Transit by Anna Seghers | Review

My father recently told a story about how my grandfather's name came to be spelled the way it is. As he told the story, he referenced my grandfather's papers. "You see," he turned to explain to me, "your grandfather didn't have a passport at that point, what he had were transit papers."

But of course, I knew all about transit papers. I had, you see, just finished reading Anna Seghers' Transit (translated by Margot Dembo), a book so thoroughly steeped in the bizarre and complicated politics of transit papers that the book is literally named for them.

I feel like Transit was too hyped for me. Or perhaps this is another NYRB classic that isn't entirely to my taste. It's not that I disliked Transit or even that I struggled with it especially. I didn't. The book ambles along pleasantly and certainly has what to say. There were moments in the book that felt thrilling, almost. The writing generally worked and I managed to polish the book off in two fairly long sittings.

It's just that I didn't understand at any point why I should care for the narrator. Or any character, for that matter. The book is - by design - representative of a sort of time-suck, with the narrator frozen in place as he navigates a bureaucracy that he has little interest in. The book loops lazily, purposefully, cleverly, but it was hard for me to appreciate the technical chops when I just couldn't care about why I was tracking this story.

The descriptions of the book as one dealing with "boredom" and "anxiety" seem a little off to me as well. Yes, there was plenty of boredom here (some of it mine...), but it's a lazy sort of boredom. The narrator is ultimately not interested in leaving. His anxiety - while real - is backstage and a bit passive. Weirdly - or perhaps intentionally? - the main set of characters in Transit are actually the ones with the least explainable motivation for wanting/needing to escape. It's the small stories that Seghers' introduces alongside the narrator's that display the urgency of fleeing, of refugees, of desperation and anxiety. While the narrator has some aspect of this in his legitimate refugee status, his personality seems to erase any urgency.

I'm simplifying things here a bit. After all, the narrator's identity drama is actually quite funny (in a somewhat tragic way). Then there's the almost breezy comfort in the writing, which makes the dull sections slightly easier to read. There's the powerful, real-time description of the war and its many tragedies (though its main victims seem oddly erased from the narrative...), the masses of refugees fleeing in hopes of life (a message that still, sadly, resonates today), and occasional quiet moments of contemplation that display warmth on behalf of the narrator.

But as always, I read books first and foremost with my heart. How did the book make me feel, did I relate to the characters, did I walk away with the sensation that the book contributed intellectually and emotionally? All metrics fell short in some form or other. Even intellectually, I felt as though the "boredom" aspect (as the blurb calls it, though I think it's more "laziness") didn't quite live up to its potential and there was little to actually justify this being a "literary thriller" - a few thrilling moments do not a thriller make. And emotionally, the book felt like we never clicked. Transit is far from a bad book, but it didn't quite work for me as I expected.

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