Jorge Semprún and His Memories of the 20th Century Pass Away

Jorge Semprún in 2001
Jorge Semprún in 2001. Photo by Gorka Lejarcegi.
Jorge Semprún in 2008
Jorge Semprún in 2008. Photo by Daniel Mordzinski.

Jorge Semprún and His Memories of the 20th Century Pass Away
An exiled boy who became the Minister of Culture, the author of “Writing or Life” was deported to a concentration camp in Buchenwald and was expelled from the Communist Party for dissension
El País: Muere Jorge Semprún, una memoria del siglo XX
Javier Rodríguez Marcos reporting from Madrid June 7, 2011

Jorge Semprún died in Paris on Tuesday according to sources close to the family. He was 87 years old. With him go the memories of Prisoner #44,904 of Buchenwald, the German concentration camp to which he was deported from ages 20-22. Semprún constructed his literary corpus with fragments of his own memory, and in his works survive the actions and feelings of a life scorched by the fire of all the modern barbarisms.

And with him disappears a memory which cannot be captured in books: the smell of roasted human flesh. What most worried him about the future was exactly that. He said in a 2000 interview, “The witnesses of the Extermination are disappearing. Well, this happens every generation: the testimonies of the past disappear. But this is my own life I’m talking about. Some people older than I have passed through the camps, but obviously they aren’t all writers. In twilight, memory becomes more intense, but it’s also more subject to distortion. There’s something else… Do you know what the most important thing about passing through the camp was? Do you know what exactly is most important and most terrible, what can’t be explained? The smell of roasted human flesh. What do you do with the memory of the smell of roasted human? Literature exists for precisely these reasons. But how do you talk about it? Do you make a comparison? Or would that be obscene? Do you say, for example, that it smells like roasted chicken? Or do you try to minutely reconstruct the general circumstances of the memory, talking around the smell, around and around again, without facing up to it? I have inside my mind, still vivid, the most important smell from the concentration camps. And I can’t explain what it’s like. This smell is going to pass away with me as it already has with others.” Today these words are truer than ever.

The Literature of Memory
“I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.” These words from Baudelaire which Jorge Semprún used in Goodbye, Light of Summers certainly describe the life of a man whose eight decades of existence could be tracked in his literary works, which include fiction like The White Mountain, Netchaiev Has Returned, and Twenty Years And a Day but which is historic because of one of the greatest autobiographical cycles of contemporary literature.

Like memory itself, the Semprún’s memoirs are not like a straight line but rather like a spiral: sometimes the same stories are told in different books for different reasons. “Because my life is not like a river,” he wrote in That Sunday: “Most of all because a river is always different and never the same, and you cannot step in the same river twice: my life is completely made up of what I’ve already seen and lived and repeated, the same things ad nauseum, such that it seems like something else, something strange, because it’s all so identical.”

So one can reconstruct the key moments of the writer’s life by chronologically reading this set of books, which were not written in this order: his adolescent years as a Spanish Civil War exile (Goodbye, Light of Summers…), the anti-Nazi resistance and his experience in Buchenwald (The Long Journey, I Will Live with His Name and Die with Mine, That Sunday, and most of all Writing or Life), his explulsion from the Spanish Communist Party (The Autobiography of Federico Sánchez), or his time as Minister of Culture during Felipe González’s second term (Federico Sánchez Says Farewell to You All).

The maternal grandson of the conservative politician Antonio Maura, president of King Alfonso XIII’s government, Jorge Semprún was born in Madrid December 10, 1923. His mother died before he turned eight, and during the Civil War, all his siblings went to La Haya to reunite with their father, the Spanish Republic’s ambassador to the Low Countries. In 1939, the war lost, the family installed itself in Paris, where Jorge and his brother Gonzalo studied as interns at the demanding Lycée Henri IV. In Goodbye, Light of Summers… (1998) Semprún remembered those years in which, after being mocked in a breadshop for his accented French, he resolved to eliminate every trace of foreignness in the pronunciation of what would be his fundamental literary language.

The discovery of Levinas gave him his first extraordinary award in philosophy, and a political commitment led him to join the Spanish Communist Party in 1942. A year later, he was detained as a member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and he was tortured and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camps. There he was freed from the probable death that awaited intellectuals when he was registered as a plaster worker rather than as a student. His knowledge of German, one of his father’s obsessions, also helped him to survive two years with a red triangle inscribed with an S for Spaniard on his chest.

On April 11, 1945, two American soldiers opened the gates of the camp which were marked with a sarcastic inscription: “to each what he deserves.” But the liberation and the memories of the experience brought a fresh dilemma to Jorge Semprún: whether to write about the past or live in the present. The former, he would later say, would have brought him to suicide if the years hadn’t mediated the pain first. Already in 1963 he had told some of the story in The Long Journey; he waited until 1994 to plumb the depths of his wounds. The result was a title that is now mythical: Writing or Life.

Before he arrived at that moment of catharsis, Semprún got involved in communist militancy as Federico Sánchez, his code name in Franco’s Spain. But he set the world on fire for a second time in 1964. That year, together with Fernando Claudín, he was expelled from the party for deviating from the official line established by Dolores Ibárruri and Santiago Carrillo. That episode was the backbone of a book which, written in Spanish, won him the Planeta award in 1977: The Autobiography of Federico Sánchez.

Years later, in Federico Sánchez Says Goodbye to You All (1993), the writer definitively divulged the man behind the alias to recount his last pass through politics. From 1988 to 1991, he had been the Minister of Culture; the book is an unrepeatable part of Spanish literature for being something so infrequent: the memoirs of a member of the government, public and exposed. With a high literary style, Semprún narrated without any concealment his disagreements with the Socialist Party’s apparatus, embodied in Vice President Alfonso Guerra. Rawness and irony accompanied the episodes from his life, such as negotiations with Baroness Thyssen about air-conditioning the Villahermosa palace or a visit from the Queen of England to the Prado Museum.

Last Visit to the Concentration Camp
The ministerial memoirs of Jorge Semprún began with a phone call from Javier Solana asking if the writer still had a Spanish passport, a sine qua non for becoming part of the cabinet. His answer was affirmative. Semprún, author of cinematic scripts for directors like Alan Resnais (The War Has Ended) and Costa Gavras (Z, The Confession) wrote the majority of his work in French. Nevertheless, he never gave up his Spanish nationality. Not writing more in Spanish kept him from winning the Cervantes Prize, but not renouncing his Spanish nationality kept him from being admitted to the Académie Française – although it was controversial, and he was made a member of the Académie Goncourt. This was the fate of the European writer, who at the same time won international prizes like the Formentor (1964), the German Peace Prize (1994), and the Jerusalem (1996).

Jorge Semprún began to construct the Europe in which he believed, he said, from the diversity of the deported prisoners of Buchenwald, the dark face of Goethe’s Weimar, which was only a few steps away. On April 11, 2010, the writer visited the camp one last time to give a speech. It was a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the liberation, and days before he published an article in this newspaper in which he recognized with extreme lucidity, but also with fury, that he was approaching his end: “I am here one last time, this April 11, neither resigned to die nor anxious about death but rather furious, extraordinarily irritated by the idea that soon I won’t be here, in the middle of the beauty of the world even amidst its insipid grayness, as in this case – this last time, I will say what I have to say.”

And say it he did. Overcoming the suffering of an illness, Semprún arrived at Buchenwald and spoke there. He did so in the camp’s Appelplatz, the same place in which he heard the voice – “guttural, ill-humored, aggressive” – of the Rapportführer, which thundered every day in alternation with a musical program which some Sundays loudly played “the everlasting love songs” of Zarah Leander. There he remembered the Jewish children who in 1945 were taken from Poland to Weimar before the advance of the Russian army. Among them were future Nobel Prize winners Imre Kertész and Elie Wiesel.

Semprún entrusted his testimony to that generation. “All the European memories of resistance and suffering,” he said, “Are theirs alone: they, for these next ten years, are the last refuge and bastion of the Jewish memory of the Extermination. The oldest memories of that life are with the youngest to live through that death.”

With the parting of Jorge Semprún, his memories of the century are lost. The rest is in his work, which cannot be erased. Those books, full of life and the love of life, beautiful or gray, are also full of the reading which sometimes served as a refuge. He, who carefully selected each of his references, put a sentence from the poet Roland Dubillard at the forefront of I Will Live with His Name and Die with Mine. These nine words sound like the conclusive statement of the writer of memory: “I’m sure that my death will remind me of something…”

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