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Seghers, Anna (Sample Translation)

Transit (Transit)

Aufbau Verlag / Aufbau Taschenbuch, 13th impression 2007, 290 pp
ISBN: 978-3-7466-5153-8 


Chapter 1
They say the “Montreal” sank between Dakar and Martinique. Hit a mine. The shipping company won’t give out any information. Maybe it’s all a rumour anyway. Other ships were forced to wander the seven seas, refused entry by every harbour, and rather than being allowed to drop anchor, they were set alight and left to burn on the high seas, just because the passengers’ papers had expired a few days before; compared with the fate of these ships, I think you will agree that the sinking of the “Montreal” in wartime is a natural death for a ship. If it’s not all a rumour again. If the ship wasn’t seized or ordered back to Dakar in the meantime. If that is the case, then the passengers will be roasting in a camp on the edge of the Sahara. It could also be that they have happily reached the other side of the ocean. – You think this is all pretty inconsequential? Are you getting bored? – I am too. Please be my guest. I’m sorry I haven’t got enough money for a real dinner. Just a glass of rosé and a slice of pizza. Do join me! Which way would you like to face? Would you like to see them baking the pizza in the wood-fired oven? Then sit next to me. The old harbour? Then you’d better sit opposite. You can see the sun going down behind Fort Saint-Nicolas. There’s no chance that will bore you.
Pizzas are a strange kind of pie. Round and brightly coloured like a cake. You expect something sweet, and you get a mouthful of pepper. You look at the thing more closely and you notice that it is not decorated with cherries and raisins but capsicums and olives. You get used to it. But it’s too bad they’re taking bread coupons for pizza now, even here!
I wonder if the “Montreal” really did sink. What are all those people doing over there, supposing they arrived after all? Starting a new life? Taking up jobs? Forcing their way on to committees? Clearing the primeval forests? Well, if that complete wilderness really exists – it’s supposed to put new life in everything and everyone – I might almost be sorry I didn’t go with them. I had every chance of going with them. I had paid for my ticket, I had a visa and I had a transit visa. But I suddenly decided to stay here.
Amongst the passengers on the “Montreal” there was a couple that I had a fleeting acquaintance with. You know yourself how it is with these brief encounters on railway stations, in the waiting rooms at consulates, in the visa department of the prefecture. The murmur of a few words – how fleeting, like the rustle of banknotes being changed in a hurry. But occasionally you are touched by a single exclamation, a word, a face – whatever. It goes deep inside you, quickly and fleetingly. You look up, you prick up your ears, and suddenly you are involved. I would like to tell the whole story one day, from beginning to end. If I weren’t scared of boring the other person, that is. Aren’t you fed up with all these exciting stories? Aren’t you heartily sick and tired of these thrilling tales of breathless escapes, of narrow brushes with death? I’m thoroughly sick of them myself. If anything still gets me going these days, then perhaps it is an old workman telling me how many metres of wire he has drawn in his long life, and what tools he used, or the soft light that a few children are doing their homework by.
Be careful with the rosé! It goes down like raspberry juice – which is what it looks like. It makes you unbelievably euphoric. How easy it is to bear everything. How easy it is to put everything into words. And then when you get up your knees tremble. And melancholy takes hold of you, unending melancholy – until your next rosé. The only thing you want is to stay sitting there and never get involved in anything.
I used to get involved in things, things I am ashamed of today. I am only a little ashamed – they’re all in the past. But what would really get to me would be to bore anyone. Just the same, I would like to tell you everything right from the beginning.
At the end of winter I found myself in a labour camp near Rouen. I found myself in the most unsightly uniform of any army in the war, worn by the French “prestataires”. At night we slept behind barbed wire because we were foreigners: somewhere between prisoners and soldiers. During the day we did “work duty”. We had to unload English munition ships. We were bombed mercilessly. The German planes flew so low that they cast shadows on us. Now I understood why people said “under the shadow of death”. One day I was unloading with a boy they called Little Franz, and his face was as far from mine as yours is now. It was sunny, there was a roar of engines in the air. Then Little Franz looked up. They were swooping down low now. His face darkened in the shadow. Thook. A bomb struck right beside us. You know as well as I do what it’s like. Everything was finally coming to an end. The Germans were coming closer. What did the horrors and sufferings we had gone through matter now? The end of the world was at hand, tomorrow, tonight, at this very moment. The arrival of the Germans meant something like this to all of us.
Mayhem broke out in the camp. Some were weeping, some praying, some trying to take their own lives and some succeeded. Others decided to make a run for it—a run from the Day of Judgment! But the commander had positioned machine guns at the gate of the camp. We wasted our breath telling him the Germans would mow us down at once if they discovered we had escaped from Germany. But all he knew about was how to pass on orders as he received them. Now he was waiting for orders about what was to happen to the camp. His superior officer had long since made off, our little town had been evacuated and the peasants had fled from the neighbouring villages. How far off were the Germans? Another two days, or just two hours? But, to give him his due, our commander was not such a bad chap. For him this was still a real war; he didn’t understand the ignominy, the extent of betrayal. Finally we came to a kind of unspoken agreement with the man. One machine gun was to remain at the gate because there had been no order rescinding this. But we assumed he would not fire at us too ferociously if we climbed over the wall.
So we climbed over the camp wall at night, a few dozen men. One of us, he was called Heinz, had lost his right leg in Spain. After the end of the civil war he had sat around for a long time in camps in the south. Heaven knows what mix-up had caused him to be dragged up north to us, as he really was unfit for any labour camp. This Heinz now had to be heaved over the wall by his friends. They took it in turns to carry him into the night, because they were in a terrible hurry, the Germans hard on their heels.
Each of us had a very good reason not to fall into the hands of the Germans. I myself had made off from a German concentration camp in 1937. I had swum across the Rhine by night. For six months I was pretty proud of this, then other things, newer things happened to the world and me. Now I was escaping for a second time, this time from a French camp, and I thought of my first escape, from the German camp. Little Franz and I jogged along side by side. Like most people at that time we had the naive aim of getting across the Loire. We kept off the main roads and ran across country. We went through abandoned villages where unmilked cows were bellowing. We looked for something to eat but everything was bare, from the gooseberry bush to the barn. We wanted a drink of water but the pipes had been cut. We could hear no more gunfire; the village idiot who had been left behind by himself couldn’t tell us anything. Dread overcame us. This desolation was more nightmarish than the bombing on the docks. Finally we came upon the Paris road. We were not the last by any means. Refugees were still pouring steadily from villages to the north. Harvest waggons, tall as farmhouses, laden with furniture and poultry cages, with children and the very elderly, with goats and calves; trucks with a whole convent of nuns; a little girl trundling her mother along on a cart; motor cars with attractive women sitting uneasily in the furs they had managed to rescue, but the cars were pulled by cows as there were no petrol stations open; women dragging dying children, some of them already dead.
It was then the thought struck me: what were these people actually running away from? From the Germans? No use, as they were in motor vehicles. From death? The road was as good a place as any for death to catch up with them. But this thought hadn’t occurred to me till then, when I saw the most wretched of them.
Little Franz somehow leaped on to a passing vehicle, and I was picked up by a truck. Outside a village another truck drove into the one I was on, and I had to continue on foot. That was the last time I saw Little Franz.
I bashed my way across country again and came to a big isolated farmhouse that still had people living in it. I asked for something to eat and drink, and to my astonishment the woman put a plate of soup, wine and bread on the garden table for me. She told me that they had had a long family argument but had just decided to leave like everyone else. Everything was packed and it only needed to be loaded now.
While I ate and drank, the planes buzzed quite low. I was too tired to raise my head. I also heard a burst of machine-gun fire fairly close by. It was unclear to me where it had come from and was too tired to think. All I could think of was that I would surely be able to jump on this family’s truck afterwards. They were already starting the engine. The woman darted excitedly back and forth between the truck and the house. You could tell how sorry she was to leave the fine house. Like everyone in this situation she hastily packed all kinds of useless stuff on top. Then she came to my table, pulled my plate away and shouted: “Fini!”
Then I saw her gaping. She was staring over the garden fence. I turned round and saw, no, I heard – I don’t know whether I heard or saw first, or did both at the same time – probably the truck had drowned the noise of the motorcycles. Now two men stopped behind the fence, each had two people in the sidecars wearing grey-green uniforms. One of them said loudly and clearly enough for me to hear: “Bugger it all, now the new belt is broken too.”
The Germans were here already! They had overtaken me. I don’t know how I had imagined the arrival of the Germans: thunder and earthquakes perhaps?
There was nothing at first but the arrival of two motorcycles beyond the garden fence. The effect was just as great, perhaps even greater. I sat paralysed. My shirt was wet through in an instant. I felt now what I had not felt as I fled the first camp, nor even when I was unloading directly beneath the planes. For the first time in my life I felt the fear of death.
Please be patient with me! I shall soon get to the heart of it. You might understand: there comes a time when you have to tell someone everything in the right order. I still can’t work out what was making me so scared. Being found out? Being stood up against the wall? At the docks it would have been no different: just an unceremonious disappearance. Being sent back to Germany? Being slowly tortured to death? I was taking the same chance when I swam across the Rhine. In any case, I had always liked living on the edge, I always felt drawn to danger. And as I tried to think of what was making me so dreadfully scared, my fear ebbed away a little.
I did what was both most sensible and most stupid: I stayed put. I had been wanting to put two new holes in my belt, and so I did just that. The farmer came into the garden, his face blank, and said to his wife: “Well, now we might as well stay.” – “Of course,” said his wife, relieved, “but you go into the barn and I’ll deal with these men; they won’t eat me.” –“Me neither,” said the man, “I’m not a soldier, they’ll see my club foot.”
Meanwhile a whole column had pulled up on the grass behind the fence. They didn’t even come into the garden. After three minutes they drove on. For the first time in four years I heard German commands. Oh, how they grated! I very nearly jumped to my feet and stood to attention.
Later I heard that this same motorcycle column had blocked road I had come on. All the military discipline, all the commands had created the most terrible chaos. Blood, mothers’ screams, the end of the world as we know it. Yet, there was something buzzing as an undertone beneath these commands that was brutally clear and despicably honest: just don’t make a fuss! If your world is going to be destroyed anyway, if you have not defended it, if you are standing by as it is being broken up, then let’s have no nonsense. Don’t dither – leave the commands to us!
Unlike the others, I suddenly grew quite calm. Here I am, I thought, sitting and thinking, while the Germans are marching past and occupying France. But France has often been occupied – and all the invaders were forced to withdraw again. France has often been sold and betrayed, and you too, my grey-green lads, have often been sold and betrayed. My fear had vanished completely, the swastika was a chimera, I saw the mightiest armies in the world march up beyond my garden fence and move off, I saw the boldest empires crumble and young, daring ones come up, I saw the masters of the universe rising and decaying. I alone I had limitless time to live.
Notwithstanding any of this, my dream of getting across the Loire was now at an end. I decided to go to Paris. I knew a few decent people there, assuming they were still decent.
(pages 7-12 of the German edition)
The following passage has been selected to explain the visa and transit-visa problem.
She implored the man to come to Marseilles. She needed to see him again, and she needed to see him at once. Not one moment’s hesitation – she wanted him to join her as soon as he got the letter and she didn’t care how he came. Leaving this wretched country would take a long time, she wrote, and so the visa might expire. They had of course managed to get it and pay the passage – but there was no ship which would take them directly to their destination. They had to travel through other countries. These other countries demanded transit visas; they were very difficult to obtain, and it took a long time. If they didn’t join forces immediately to get things moving, everything could be wrecked. There was no certainty, except about the visa, and it was only valid for a limited time. Now they had to work on getting the transit visa.
The letter seemed a bit confused to me. What did she suddenly want from the man she had left for good? Set sail with him, when she had refused to stay with him at any price? A vague picture formed in my head, with the dead man escaping many new torments and fresh complications. And as I read through the letter once more, this complete jumble of wanting to see him again, transit visas, consulates and sailing dates, it seemed to me that he had found security and perfect peace in the place he was now.
(page 29)

Translated by Tomas Drevikovsky