Jorge Semprun is a survivor of what was once called “the midnight of the century,” that period when European civilization was being ground between the millstones of nazism and Stalinism. Born in Spain to a father who was later a diplomat for the Spanish Republic, he fought for that Republic himself until its defeat in 1939 and then fled to France. When fascism followed him there a short while later, he joined the French resistance and was taken prisoner by the Nazi occupation forces. Deported to Buchenwald, he survived until the liberation and spent the next two decades working in the illegal apparatus of the Spanish Communist Party. A Euro-communist avant de la lettre, he fell afoul of Stalinism and the party and chose to emphasize himself as a writer. Even those unfamiliar with his novels may have seen his screenplays for Alain Resnais’ “La Guerre Est Finie” (1966) and Costa-Gavras’ “Z” (1969). When Felipe Gonzalez formed Spain’s first socialist government after the collapse of Francoism, he invited Semprun to become minister of culture.
In 1963, Semprun published a novel, written in French, called “Le Grand Voyage,” which in some English editions is entitled “The Cattle Truck.” It enjoyed a great success in almost every country except Spain and won the Prix Formentor. Let me quote Jean Paulhan of the French Academy, who was asked by the publisher to write a reader’s report on the manuscript:
“It’s the journey into Germany of deportees who are crowded, crushed up against one another. The conversations of the author with his neighbor, the ‘guy from Semur,’ are excellent. Unfortunately, the guy from Semur dies before their arrival and the rest of the story is more lackluster. Nothing very remarkable. Nothing execrable, either, in this honest story.”
Semprun used to recite this to himself as an insurance against conceit. Because, actually, Paulhan was not far off. By the standards of concentration camp literature, “The Long Voyage” is almost laconic. The cattle car journey is depicted in tones that are objective rather than horrific; there is no dwelling on harrowing detail, and the death of the decent, tough and friendly “guy from Semur” is not even given a cause. Nor is there anything much about “the struggle.” Semprun notes that the deportation train passes through Trier and the Moselle valley, but the reference he makes to this as the old stamping ground of Karl Marx is so oblique that only aficionados can be expected to get it. The communist uprising in Buchenwald at the end of the war is barely touched upon, and Semprun notes with some distaste that after the liberation, some of his comrades are already striking heroic attitudes and “sprouting the souls of veterans.” He resolves not to do the same. For him, the most remarkable thing is the literary location of the camp. It is erected just outside Weimar, where once Goethe and Eckerman went on reflective strolls together. In the camp itself, the SS guards lovingly preserve the beech tree under which the two men used to sit.
Semprun was a teenager when he joined the French resistance, and he was still young and resilient when he got out of Buchenwald. In a very wry section of “Literature or Life,” he says that in Paris after the war, he decided that the mind/body distinction was false; his body always did what his mind wanted it to do. Relatively unscarred, he resolved that it would be morbid to dwell on the camp and abandoned the attempt to write about it. As between literature and life, then, he chose “a long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia, in order to survive.” His communist faith probably helped him make this resolution; it is probably no coincidence that he did not even publish the relatively spare “The Long Voyage” until that faith had begun to wane.
But now Semprun is a veteran whether he chooses to be or not. And in writing “Literature or Life"--a reworking of “The Long Voyage” as a sort of fictionalized memoir--he has evidently decided that the life/literature distinction, like the old mind/body one, may have more to it than first appeared. (His reading of Primo Levi has obviously been seminal here.) The work of memory and of history have become more pressing because the ranks of the witnesses are thinning.
You don’t absolutely have to read “The Long Voyage” to understand “Literature or Life.” For one thing, most of the first narrative (including the solidarity with the anonymous “guy from Semur”) is contained within the second. But if I hadn’t reread the original, I would have missed the layering and the reworking and the contrasts. In “The Long Voyage,” Semprun showed a fascination for numinous dates and for calendar coincidences, and in the update, these coincidences become more than mnemonic. He realizes that he and Levi started to write their recollections at almost the same time. He notices that Franz Kafka “lived from 1883, the year of Karl Marx’s death, to 1924, the year Lenin died.” Kafka was the supreme writer about the universe of bureaucratic evil. Kant was the philosopher of “radical evil.” Goethe was the civilized observer of a great European revolution. Through these shifting and refracting prisms, Semprun surveys the whole experience of nazism afresh. His memory is jogged--jolted might be a better word--by his physical revisiting of the scene. He discovers, furthermore, that the Stalinist authorities were quick to reopen Buchenwald and used it as a camp for their own purposes.
Most intriguing, perhaps, he reveals that the character of “Hans” in the original novel--a character who embodied the German internationalist and Jewish resistance--was, unlike “the guy from Semur,” a double invention. He “invented” Hans because, as a socialist himself, he felt the story needed a good German. Now, he finds everything much more complex and many-sided than that. In real life, he discovers from an examination of the camp’s records that an actual good German probably saved Semprun’s life by upgrading his ID card from “student” to “skilled worker,” thus making him more valuable to the camp authorities.
Germany, he concludes, is the only European country that has been both victim and perpetrator of both nazism and Stalinism: “The political experiences that have made the history of Germany a tragic history can also allow Germany to take its place in the forefront of a democratic and universalist expansion for the idea of Europe. And the site of Weimar-Buchenwald could become the symbol of this idea, a place of remembrance and promise.”
The German revolutionary Eugene Levine once said that people like himself were “dead men on leave.” Semprun has attempted to transcend this pessimism by showing that survivors can overcome their experiences, as can nations, by confronting them with courage and honesty. Thanks in part to the work of a “Spanish Red,” who fought for France and who in Buchenwald had to wear a red triangle with an S on it, Goethe’s beech tree outgrows the camp that once enclosed it.