The Passenger is a prophecy come true. It’s that rare novel that speaks of its time (1938), to its time (Germany, under the Nazis), and a host of possible futures. It’s a novelistic expression of Rilke’s You must change your life, laced with Kafkaesque anxiety and rational paranoia, with a Hamlet of sorts at the helm. The author, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, was all of 23 when he wrote it, and just 27 when he died.
Written in the wake of the Kristallnacht pogroms, the novel tells the story of Otto Silbermann, a respected Jewish businessman who slowly but surely realizes the existential threat to his life posed by the Nazis.
As he stepped onto the red plush runner and climbed the stairs, he once again had the sensation that his life was only half real. Recently such ruminations had become a habit.
I’m living as though I weren’t a Jew, he thought, somewhat incredulously. For the time being I’m simply a well-to-do citizen—under threat, it’s true, but as of yet unscathed. How is this possible? I live in a modern six-room apartment. People talk to me and treat me as though I were one of them. They act as if I’m the same person I used to be, the liars—it’s enough to give a man a guilty conscience. Whereas I’d like to show them a clearer picture of reality, namely that as of yesterday I’m something different because I am a Jew. And who did I used to be? No—who am I? What am I, really? A swear word on two legs, one that people mistake for something else!
And then the trains. Metaphors for life’s journey, its limits, its speed, its headlong rush. But all the more real for their potential as escape vehicles. For their potential to cross borders.
Did the author suspect there was so much more to them, waiting in the future? It seems unlikely. Though this may be the first novel written about Germany before WWII that speaks of the imminent, unspeakable dangers to Jews. It’s impossible not to see it all as prescient to a ghastly degree, and to think what might have been.
In the preface and afterward we learn a little about the author’s own story, which parallels and concentrates the tragedy of the book itself. He and his mother managed to escape Germany before they shut the borders, and they went to England. But at the outset of the war, the author was interned along with most German nationals, and then shipped off to Australia, a harrowing journey in itself. Irony follows irony, when he finally qualifies for a trip back to England. His ship is sunk by a German U-boat in 1942, and with his death, we also lost a manuscript for another of his novels.
Too young to die, and too young to have written this book. But he did. It’s arguably a masterpiece, and the Republic of Arts and Letters is enriched by its rediscovery.