Buchenwald, Books, and the Identity of the Intellectual in the Works of Jorge Semprun

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From the days of his youth, Jorge Semprun has thought of himself as a writer. After his imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp, however, he faced a momentous, potentially fatal decision: to bear witness as an author or to choose life, for he believed that writing about what he had lived would lead inevitably to his death. By opting not to write, Semprun abandoned, for the moment, "le projet qui donnait a mes yeux un sens a ma vie, celui d'etre ecrivain. Un projet qui avait, des l'enfance quasiment, structure mon identite la plus authentique" ("the project that, as I saw it, gave a meaning to my life, that of being a writer. A project that had, practically from my childhood, structured my most authentic identity" [Mal et modernite (Evil and Modernity) 94]). Only in 1963 did he finally publish Le grand voyage (The Long Voyage), which established him as a novelist whose oeuvre is intimately tied to the historical events that so powerfully marked his life. In the years between the end of World War II and 1964, when he was expelled from the Communist Party, Semprun led the secret life of a party operative, replete with mysterious travels, safe houses, and aliases. Speaking of Soledad (Solitude), a play he had written but, after the negative judgment of a party boss, never published, Semprun allows that this early work already contained "All my obsessive personal themes," including that of "Clandestine life, not only as an adventure [...] but also as a path toward the conquest of a genuine identity" (Communism in Spain 74). Le grand voyage, with its return to the Buchenwald experience, launched Semprun on the "recherche d'un moi partiellement retrouve et reunifie autour d'un destin qui prend sens" ("quest for a self partially found again and once more unified around a destiny that is taking on meaning" [Nicoladze 13]). This lasting quest for an understanding of his identity--as an actor on the political stage, as a writer, and as an intellectual--explains in part why, in a 1993 interview with Gerard de Cortanze, Semprun accented the autobiographical in his writing: "Mes livres sont presque tous des chapitres d'une autobiographie interminable" ("My books are almost all chapters in a never-ending autobiography" [264]). Even when he does not intrude explicitly into his novels, the reader senses his presence, and his characters often mirror or stand in for their author. Indeed, Semprun refers to Juan Larrea, a character in La montagne blanche (The White Mountain), as "un personnage de roman qui etait mort a ma place" ("a character in a novel who died instead of me"), one who "avait pris la place que la mort m'avait gardee" ("had taken the place that death had set aside for me" [L'ecriture ou la vie (Literature or Life) 302]).

To understand something of the contours and significance of the ongoing search for an identity in the life and works of Jorge Semprun, it is useful to turn briefly to another Holocaust writer, Jean Amery, whose style differs grzeatly from his but with whom he has much in common. Semprun was persecuted for his political activities, Amery for being Jewish and for his work in the Resistance. Both men were forced to leave their homeland, both were physically tortured, and both were victims of concentration camps. (1) Following his liberation in 1945, Amery took up writing and journalism but felt that "My identity as a writer, which I had been seeking since my sixteenth year, when my first manuscript was printed in Vienna, has vanished" ("After Five Thousand" 3). Perhaps because of this, Amery, like Semprun, insists upon the centrality of autobiography: "It is a widely known, almost trivial fact that every piece of writing, even a theoretical one, has an autobiographical background, an autobiographical substratum. It is just a matter of degree and density of the autobiographical element that finds its way into the work" (1). The late German writer W. G. Sebald highlights that "degree and density" in Amery's writings: "In considering the essays written by Jean Amery in the fourteen years between 1960 and his death, one notices both their exclusively autobiographical approach and their relatively slight narrative content" (148). …