“I believe ardently that real memory, not historical and documentary memory but living memory, will be perpetuated only through literature. Because literature alone is capable of reinventing and regenerating truth.”
-Jorge Semprún, interviewed in the Paris Review, Spring 2007.
I learned recently that Jorge Semprún was dead. I hope, when my time comes, that I will be able to look back on a life as courageous as his. Novelist-memoirist, screenwriter, and revolutionary, Semprún was a modernist to the core, always undercutting sentimentality, questioning the nineteenth-century assumptions that shaped so much of Communist politics and literary production. His modernism was expressed in continual self-reflection, darting back and forth between past and present, art and politics.
Semprún was the child of a diplomat stationed in the Netherlands at the time of Franco’s coup against the Spanish republic; the family took refuge in France, where Semprún was educated. He became active in the French resistance and, at age twenty, was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Buchenwald in 1943. There he remained until the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army sixteen months later. He describes Buchenwald as the formative experience of his life, though many years passed before he was able to write about it, in his first memoir-novel, The Long Voyage (1963):
Buchenwald was a peculiar camp, an acute catalyzer of moral conflicts. It was built by the Nazis in 1937 to house their political opponents, mostly Communists and Social Democrats, with a small minority of Christian Democrats. There were more than fifty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald—it was a veritable city, with its own works department, infirmary, kitchens, storerooms—and very quickly the internal administration of the camp was taken over and run by the inmates themselves, with an SS officer in charge of each production unit. It was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, which was built entirely around the gas chambers and the crematoria. Buchenwald was a work camp. We were integrated into the German war industry and fed enough to sustain us for a few months—in a state beyond exhaustion, but alive. (Paris Review, Spring 2007.)
After the war, Semprún became a translator for UNESCO and, “Without giving it much thought, I went to work for the Spanish Communist Party to fight against the Franco regime. I had read Marx in my youth and was impressed by his clear, rigorous thinking. He dared to ask the great impassioned questions that one is consumed by at eighteen. The philosophers have interpreted the world, now it is up to us to change it, as Marx wrote.” (Paris Review, Spring 2007.) In 1953, he was tasked with reorganizing the Communist Party underground in Franco’s Spain and began to operate underground using the name Federico Sánchez. As his obituary in the Guardian says, “Elegant and handsome, as ‘Federico Sánchez’, Semprún became a legendary figure, remaining one step ahead of Franco’s secret police. If anyone should doubt the danger, his replacement, when he was withdrawn in 1962, was Julián Grimau, who was arrested, tortured and executed the following year.”
Of course he got kicked out of the party eventually. This is what happens to artists and critical thinkers in disciplined political parties. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to stop thinking for themselves, to hold their tongues, to refrain from pointing out mistakes made by leadership—even when they try to behave correctly, their thoughts will show in their faces or come out in the slightly ironic tone of voice with which they repeat the required syllogisms. Semprún’s feelings came to a head in 1964:
Then there were all the events taking place in the USSR, the Twentieth Congress, the so-called secret report by Khrushchev, a whole series of things that undermined our fiercest hopes. So the day came when that contradiction became intolerable, when I refused to perform self-censorship and was thus definitively expelled from the Communist Party.(Paris Review, Spring 2007.)
Semprún’s novel-memoir of his work in the party and his expulsion from it, The Memoirs of Federico Sánchez, hit me like an electric shock when first I read it: his baroque, almost Faulknerian sentence structure, the dragonfly way he darts back and forth from past to present, his current self and his old Communist self, this event and one it reminds him of—how different from the earnest, straightforward, sometimes overwrought, sometimes plodding, writing of so many American radicals.
In the U.S., Semprún is best known for his screenplays, including Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), about a murder during a fascist military coup in a country like Greece and Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est finie (1966), about a Spanish Communist organizer going back and forth across the French border. His books are read very little here; most have not even been translated. In his Paris Review interview, he explained why he thought this was the case:
Ultimately, however, I came to believe that Communist rule was the most tragic event of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is the reason I seem so difficult to understand in the United States, because for most Americans today, Communism seems like something almost alien, unfathomably distant. Whereas, quite blatantly, it was the beating pulse of my life. In the stories I tell, there are always two specific ideas—deportation and Communism. Two things Americans do not understand.
One of the reasons Americans do not understand Communism is that our writers have not given us the kind of literature that would help us do so. I made a speech to this effect at a Harvard conference on anticommunism in 1988, where I quoted from Doris Lessing and Jorge Semprún and went on:
With the possible exception of Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, I cannot think of a single American novel written about the party that has this complexity of voice. I am trying to understand why. Was it so much harder here than in Spain? Was it more difficult to exorcise the ghost of Joe McCarthy than the ghost of General Franco? Even the best-known work about the McCarthy period, Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, is an allegory, not written directly. The ordinary reader need never know it has anything to do with the persecution of communists. A post-Stalinist literature has developed all over Western Europe. It is developing now in China, and will, I am sure, do so even more strongly than before in Russia and Eastern Europe because of glasnost and perestroika, which give permission to open the books and speak bitterness. But it has not developed here.
I don’t think one can attribute the lack of such a literature to the McCarthy period alone, or even to the fear of future persecution. I think it’s the ghost of Joseph Stalin. A Stalinist way of thinking about literature still has a hold on many people’s minds, so that they don’t want to write about Communists at all, or can show only their heroic face. It’s fine to celebrate the achievements of the Communist Party, but real de-Stalinization has got to involve speaking the whole truth, the felt truth, about the past.
Howard Fast, who was on the panel with me, was extremely offended and said my statements were anti-Communist. Fast was a literary icon of the U.S. Communist Left; red diaper babies I know were brought up on his historical epics about the Revolutionary War and novels like Spartacus, later a major motion picture. Fast paid the price of his politics, going to jail under the Smith Act and being blacklisted by publishers during the fifties. But by the seventies he was once more a major commercial success and his literary approach had not fundamentally changed: as Harvey Swados said, his conception of history was rather like that of Cecil B. DeMille.
Semprún’s conception of history was more like that of Alain Resnais—implacably subjective and complex to the point of near-inscrutability. I guess that’s why I love his work—there’s so much there to chew on.
This post first appeared at Taxonomy, Meredith Tax’s blog.