by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
No fake, hipster memoirist (James Frey) or Holocaust experience fabricator (Herman Rosenblatt), but a true writer of substance who penned novelistic memoirs (or memoirish novels) under no uncertain terms—notably on deportation (to a concentration camp during WWII) and the confrontation of that experience—using literary fiction to unveil the truth about historical reality.
The son of a Spanish Republican diplomat (and the grandson of a prime minister) stationed to The Hague during the civil war in Spain until Franco’s Fascist victory and the family’s eventual relocation to Paris in 1936/37. There, Semprún studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and joined both the Communist Party and the French Resistance. He was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald in 1943, where he was imprisoned for more than a year. Following the war in the 1950s and into the early-1960s, Semprún led, in his words, “a double life,” working as a United Nations interpreter in Paris, and slipping into Spain as a Communist organizer working to establish anti-Franco cells amongst the Spanish intellectual elite.
Semprún, however, became disillusioned with the despotism of Stalin in the USSR and was expelled from the party in 1964. He wrote about those years in The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez (referencing the alias he had used at the time). However, it was his 1963 novel, Le Grand Voyage (The Long Voyage also known as The Cattle Truck) where he wrote a fictionalized account of his deportation in 1943. As is the case with his body of work to follow, it was digressive in style and did not follow a strict chronology—past and future wandering back and forth in the mind of the narrator, while reflecting Semprún’s life and the brutal experience of Buchenwald, using invented or imagined conversations as if from memory. Le Grand Voyage won the prestigious Formentor Prize.
Coming to grips with that experience, and being able to write about it was the substance of his most famous work, 1997′s Literature Or Life. Like Le Grand Voyage, it is written in the form of a memoir, but with fictionalized scenes that courted controversy. Semprún however was unyielding in his belief that fiction was a tool for unveiling, not obscuring the truth. “In the case of deportation, both Jewish and non-Jewish, it is simply not possible to tell, or write the truth. The truth we experienced is not credible, and this is a fact that the Nazis relied upon in terms of their own legacy” (Paris Review, 2007).
“‘What’s essential,’ I tell Lieutenant Rosenfeld, ‘is the experience of Evil. Of course, you can experience that anywhere. …You don’t need concentration camps to know Evil. But here, this experience will turn out to have been crucial, and massive, invading everywhere, devouring everything…. It’s the experience of radical Evil.’” (Literature Or Life)
Semprún was Spain’s minister of Culture from 1988-1991. He was also a screenwriter (Z, 1969, directed by Costa-Gavras, a story of political assassination in Greece, starring Yves Montand; Stavisky, 1974, directed by Alain Resnais, about a small-time swindler turned powerful financier with the rise of Fascism as a backdrop, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo; Roads to the South, 1978, directed by Joseph Losey, about a Spanish revolutionary turned screenwriter who gets pulled back into politics, again starring Montand).
Literature Or Life
Illustration/manipulation: Martin Ogolter after an original photograph via Corbis-Bettmann
Design: Martin Ogolter
Art Director: Paul Buckley — with Martin Ogolter.