Letters of Transit

Prop from the Film Casablanca: The Letter of Transit

I have just finished reading a magnificent novel by Anna Seghers entitled Transit (1944). At the time it was being written—around 1942—a film entitled Casablanca was being made starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The film’s “maguffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, are certain letters of transit that have been stolen from Nazi authorities allowing the bearer to leave Morocco for any desired destination.

Such was the film’s premise. Above is the prop used as the Letter of Transit, duly filled out in the name of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and wife. Note, however, that the issuer is the “State of France.” At the end of the film, the Laszlos fly to Lisbon from Casablanca, en route to the United States. Strictly speaking, the so-called Letter of Transit is only an exit visa and does not bear the stamp of the Portuguese consul, let alone the American one.

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Segher’s novel tells the tale of refugees from the approaching Nazi terror gathered in Marseilles, trying vainly to collect the series of official papers that would:

  1. Allow them to leave Marseilles legally. The document above appears to be an exit visa rather than a letter of transit.
  2. Pass through other countries en route to their final destination. These are the actual letters of transit, and must be stamped by the consular authorities for each country along the way.
  3. A visa allowing entry to their final destination.
  4. Tickets for transportation along each leg of the journey.

Transit follows various Europeans frantically trying to collect the necessary paperwork before any of the stamped legal papers in their possession expire, which would require them to re-start the process.

Quoted in Segher’s novel is this passage from 2 Corinthians 11:25-26:

Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often; in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren.

More Props: The Passports of Victor Laszlo (Here Misspelled) and Ilsa Lund

The hero of Transit is a German worker and prison camp escapee named Seidler who has assumed the identity of a writer named Weidel who, despairing, had committed suicide in Paris. Curiously, he has no desire to leave Marseilles, finding the city to be a destination in its own right. (It wasn’t: The Germans eventually occupied it.) He runs into Weidel’s wife, is attracted to her, and finally merely helps her to leave, deciding to stay behind:

It’s true, I realized. Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.

I was so blown away by this book that I regard Seghers as the peer of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and behind only Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). She is probably best known for The Seventh Cross, which was filmed in 1944 by director Fred Zinnemann starring Spencer Tracy and Signe Hasso. During the Second World War, she lived in Mexico, having escaped Marseilles like some of her characters in Transit. She ended up after the war living in East Germany.

 

Westerns Then and Now

Harry Carey Jr and John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

The Westerns have been with us since the very beginning of motion pictures: The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter was shot in the un-Western-like setting of New Jersey. Within little more than a decade, William S. Hart was turning out reasonably good Westerns which he shot at Inceville, near Santa Ynez Canyon. And in 1917, John Ford did his first oater starring Harry Carey Sr, Straight Shooting. The remainder of the silent period saw a number of stars, including Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, with Hart and Carey continuing their careers.

It was in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach that the first great sound period for the Western began. Until his death in 1979, the Western was almost synonymous with The Duke. But there was also Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Victor Mature as Doc Holliday.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946)

The real glory days of the Western came in the 1950s. Not only was John Ford still active, but there were great series directed by Budd Boetticher (Decision at Sundown, 1957) and starring Randolph Scott and by Anthony Mann starring Jimmy Stewart (Bend in the River, 1q952).

The great period of the Film Western was illuminated by the bit of dialog from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962):

Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott:  No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Beginning in the 1970s, Hollywood lost sight of the legend. The Westerns were being demythologized by new filmmakers up from television. There were few real heroes, and a lot of scruffy, violent guys with beards. I suppose that Clint Eastwood was the new Western hero paradigm. Although I enjoyed his films, they were not up to the standard set by William S. Hart, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann.

 

Borges in a Nutshell

The Artistry of Jorge Luis Borges in a Single Image

When I was in Buenos Aires in 2015, I wanted to visit the Centro Cultural Borges in the Galerias Pacifico run by the author’s widow, Maria Kodama. I had expected to see more about Borges rather than various displays of modern art. There was one image that summarized Borges nicely, though my photograph does not do it justice.

At the top right is a drawing of Jorge Luis Borges, next to a representation of the Tower of Babel. This refers to his tale “The Library of Babel,” which sees the universe as an infinite collection of hexagonal library rooms, each containing uniformly-sized books representing not only books written, but all possible books. The tower rests on a pile of books, among which I can make out three titles:

  • The stories of Rudyard Kipling
  • The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Thousand and One Nights

The Galerias Pacifico Where the Centro Cultural Borges Is Located

Other works that Borges discussed at length could possibly include the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Icelandic Sagas, the stories and essays of G.K. Chesterton, and the Argentinian José Hernández’s Martin Fierro.

I started reading Borges in the early 1970s, when an article in The New Yorker alerted me to the publication of Labyrinths and Ficciones. The seed sown by those two collections led me the richness of world literature—a treasure hoard I am still exploring and will not cease exploring until my eyes are closed for the last time.

 

Chichicastenango

Shades of Religious Syncretism!

Here I sit in sunny Los Angeles. A strong Santa Ana wind is blowing in from the desert, and the humidity is rapidly sinking, giving millions of people in Southern California a bad hair day. (But then, it seems I am living a bad hair lifetime.)

A year ago, I was fantasizing about a New Mexico vacation as I was entering another tax season. Even though it was my last tax season—as I am now fully retired—I am still dreaming about making another vacation getaway, this time to Guatemala. It would be my first stay among the Maya since my many Mexico trips between 1975 and 1992.

The scene above reminds me of my trips to Highland Mayan villages in the State of Chiapas, especially Chamula and Zinacantán. In those villages, the Mayans worshiped in what once were Catholic churches, but after the 19th century expulsion of the priests, were turned into the worship of the Mayan guides. Here is a description of a scene from the church in Chamula, where one is forbidden to take pictures upon pain of violence or death:

A live chicken with its feet bound was removed from a burlap sack and laid down upon the church’s floor. Three rows of perhaps a dozen candles each were placed in front of the chicken, all were fully blazing. A bottle of Coca-Cola sat to the right. A heavy set matured woman in a long dress emblazoned with a purple flower pattern was kneeling behind the offerings, sitting on her heels. A young man was kneeling next to the woman, and an older man with a mustache took up the same position on the other side. All three adults were rocking back and forth, chanting prayers in Tzotzil. The woman then withdrew a kitchen knife, and with a quick flick of her wrist the chicken was sacrificed.

I suspect that the Mayans of Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan Highlands is not too diferent, except that the dialect spoken is not Tzotzil, but Kaqchikel. The town is famous for its handicrafts market and for the devoutness of campesinos visiting Santo Tomás church, shown above. I’ll bet that, as in Chamula, one is forbidden to take a camera into the church.

 

Untouchables

Sweeper Cleaning Sewer in New Delhi

This posting is not about Eliot Ness and his war leading an FBI contingent against Al Capone and his ilk. Rather, it is about millions of lower caste Indians who are labeled by the Hindu religion as unclean by the nature of the work they are assigned—generation after generation—keeping the streets, byways, and sewers clean of the excreta of their fellow Indians.

I am currently reading a novel written by Mulk Raj Anand called Untouchable (1935), which details a day in the life of one such Dalit family. The older son, Bakha, accidentally touches a Brahmin who almost causes a riot because he accidentally touched him as he passed by in the street. Any physical contact of a Dalit with a Brahmin requires that the latter take a purifying bath. Sweepers are required to announce their presence as they walk among men so that higher caste Hindus can avoid unwanted contact.

Dalit Sweeper

Anand’s novel launched his career as an Anglo-Indian writer. English novelist E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, has penned this tribute to him:

Some readers [of Untouchable], especially those who consider themselves all-white, will go purple in the face with rage before they have finished a dozen pages, and will exclaim that they cannot trust themselves to speak. I cannot trust myself either, though for a different reason: the book seems to me indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed. Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it. None of us are pure—we shouldn’t be alive if we were. But to the straightforward all things can become pure, and it is to the directness of his attack that Mr Anand’s success is probably due.

The plight of the Dalits will always astonish those who believe the words of our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

 

Serendipity: Basil II and Trump

Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Bulgar-Slayer

Today, I was reading Michael Psellus’ Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (aka The Chronographia), written at some point in the 11th Century A.D. We know that the current occupant of the White House has made a practice of erasing every one of his predecessor Barack Obama’s accomplishments. Apparently, this was not the first time this happened. Michael Psellus tells us how the Emperor Basil II decided to erase the work of his long-time advisor, the eunuch Basil Parakoimomenus.

He gave the subject much thought, and it was only after long vacillation that he finally made up his mind. Once the decision was taken, however, he dismissed the parakoimomenus and deposed him at one blow. What made it worse was the fact that this change in the latter’s fortunes was not softened by any sign of respect. In fact, the emperor’s action was incredibly cruel, for he shipped him off into exile.

Nor did this disgrace prove to be the end of Basil’s troubles. Rather was it the prelude to further misfortunes, for the emperor next proceeded to review the events of the reign since he acceded to the throne and the parakoimomenus began to govern the empire. He examined the various measures that had been taken during all that period. Whatever happened to contribute to his own (the emperor’s) welfare, or to the good of the state, was allowed to remain on the statutes. [Trump was not that discriminating.] All those decrees, on the other hand, which referred to the granting of favours or positions of dignity, were now rescinded. The former, the emperor contended, had been approved by himself; of the latter, he knew nothing. In everything he strove to bring about the eunuch’s downfall and disaster. For example, the parakoimomenus had built a magnificent monastery in honour of Basil the Great, a monastery that bore his own name too. It had been constructed on a massive scale, at great cost of labour, and it combined different styles of architecture with beauty. Moreover, the greater part of the material used in its building had been obtained from generous and voluntary contributions. The emperor now wished to raze this edifice to the ground.

 

Semuc Champey: “Where the River Hides Under the Stones”

A Land Bridge With Pools Under Which the River Flows

My niece Hilary has been to Guatemala a few years back. When I talked to her a couple of weeks ago, I asked which place impressed her the most. Her answer sent me to the index of my guidebook. It was Semuc Champey in the department of Alta Verapaz. This is what I found in my Moon Guatemala guide from 2015:

A giant, 300-meter-long limestone bridge forms the backbone for the descending series of pools and small waterfalls that makes up Semuc Champey. The water that fills the pools is the product of runoff from the Río Cahabón, churning as it plunges into an underground chasm from where it reemerges downstream at the end of this massive limestone overpass.

One can swim in these pools—it does look refreshing considering the surrounding jungle. There are also trails to a lookout point (from which the above photo was probably taken) and down to another point where the river plunges into an underground cavern. Sounds like Coleridge’s Xanadu:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The only problem is that Semuc Champey is not really on the road to anywhere. My first reaction to that, though, is “sounds like fun.” I may just decide to take my swimsuit and try a dip in the waters.