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Interview with Jorge Semprun

The great Spanish-born writer Jorge Semprún died on Tuesday 8 June 2011 in Paris, aged 87. A Spanish Civil War exile, Semprún joined the French communist resistance and was subsequently deported to Buchenwald in 1943 aged twenty, living out the end of the conflict in this concentration camp. In the post-war years, he continued his resistance work as the coordinator of the Spanish CP’s clandestine activities in Franquist Spain. In 1957 he began travelling secretly to his native Spain, working on and off for five years as an underground agent under the pseudonym Federico Sánchez.

 

Then, after nearly twenty years of voluntary amnesia, Semprún wrote his first book, The Long Voyage (1963), a fictionalised account of his experiences as a deportee. A year after his literary debut he was expelled from the Spanish Communist Party, having become an outspoken critic of the Stalinist terror as a result of his personal exploration of totalitarian repression.

 

For the next two decades he lived in France, writing novels, memoirs, and screenplays (for Constantin Costa-Gavras, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais, among others). After three years as a non-party Minister of Culture in Spain from 1988, he returned to Paris and wrote arguably his best-known and most important work, Literature or Life (1994), a work – once again touching on the camps – in which he argued that ‘the only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.’

 

This interview, a version of which was originally published on nonfiction.fr, was conducted a year ago almost to the day in his cherished Parisian home on the occasion of the release of his last book in the French language – paradoxically, a collection of speeches given in the German language. Despite his age, his intellect was intact, his curiosity limitless, his critical ability unaltered. An elegant and eloquent man, Semprún will go down in memory – a memory he played a part in forging – as a truly impassioned twentieth-century intellectual.

 

Q

The White Review

— The idea of memory plays a major role in your writing. It seems to be inexhaustible, never linear, and deals with both personal and collective memories. Is it fair to say that it gives your work a unity of sorts?

A

Jorge Semprun

— In a way, I would say that it wasn’t a personal choice of mine – I was forced into it. I have had a complicated life: I spent my childhood and early adolescence in Spain, then I was exiled, and my youth was spent in France. Then, around the age of 30, I came back to Spain in secret. If you do not have a sense of memory, then you end up not being anything at all! I became used to living my life under assumed identities, and whenever anyone called me by my real name, I didn’t react, because it would have been dangerous to do so at that time. At the age of 40, that period of my life ended when I was expelled from the Communist Party, and I started to write and to be published. The self is held together by memory. You remember that you were once this or that person, but that you were also the same being as well despite having lived through multiple incarnations of your self. You think that you have always been the same, but you don’t really know.

 

And thus, memory – besides the fact that I have a very good memory anyway – has been very important to me. I worked on my memory and trained it for two fundamental reasons. First of all, because of my identity, which is the most important reason from a metaphysical point of view. The second reason was safety, because I spent twenty years of my life operating in secret, and my reliance on memory during that time was twofold.  I couldn’t write down all of the appointments that I had. If I had written them down and been arrested, I would have been risking giving the police a list of victims for future arrest. This meant I had to memorise everything. And for many years, in Madrid, I would start the day by recalling my day’s meetings whilst shaving. Some had been arranged weeks in advance. I wasn’t really sure what might happen when I got there, whatever the place chosen for the appointment. So, as you can see, memory is a necessity when living in hiding, and after that, I trained it, developed it and maintained it orally – by interior monologues – and in writing, as a strong sign of my identity. So it seems natural that it would appear in my writing.

Q

The White Review

— It is impressive how many poems you know by heart…

A

Jorge Semprun

— That is the product of an education that doesn’t really exist anymore. I’m not saying that it is better or worst today – I’m not making any value judgements. But we did use to memorise a lot in the days of my literary studies, in terminale, hypokhâgne and khâgne {the final year of secondary school in the French system and the two preparatory classes taken by candidates to l’Ecole Normale Supérieure}. And yet today, I am incapable of reciting any poems in Latin! It has become much more difficult for me to remember Latin.

 

On the other hand, I have to say that in Buchenwald, the concentration camp, the hardest thing for me – everyone can say whatever they think and others will certainly have had a different experience, I am by no means saying that my experience was universal – the hardest thing to endure was proximity to other people. Try to imagine that nothing that you ever do is private – nothing. You are constantly living in sight of others. And the only way of achieving a minimal amount of intimacy, to isolate yourself, even in an artificial manner, was to remember and recite poetry. This allowed me to steal a moment of intimacy in the midst of the contiguity, which was not fundamentally hostile: we weren’t always watched by the SS, although during the day mainly we were. Constant contact with others was sometimes cumbersome, even if it was fraternal. So this contiguity was one of the worst things, one of my worst memories, and one way of temporarily avoiding it was to shut yourself away. In Spanish there is a very pretty word that describes this – ensimismarse: to lose yourself in thought, by reciting a poem. By doing this, you could remove yourself from reality. It was a temporary and unpredictable escape, and it didn’t cure you from the troubles of daily life, but it was a way out.

Q

The White Review

— After a long period of neglect, when you went back to writing, did it help you to fill in the gaps in your memory?

A

Jorge Semprun

— Of course. Writing revives your memory, and allows things that you thought you had forgotten to reappear. I am convinced that, if I were to write once more on this period of my life, even if I distanced myself by speaking in the third person or by inventing fictitious characters, even then things that I had forgotten or willed away – perhaps even censored in my own memory – would come back to the fore. Writing rekindles your memory, and for a long time, it helped me to revive memories that had become difficult to handle. Today, I am no longer troubled by my relationship to memory. I no longer have a worrying or anxious rapport with memory, thanks to the passing of time, and to the fact that I have come to terms with most of my past in my writing.

Q

The White Review

— You often say that language is your true fatherland.

A

Jorge Semprun

— Yes, because I am completely bilingual. This means that I am somewhat schizophrenic, because I switch from one to the other. Unlike Thomas Mann, I cannot say: ‘Language is my fatherland’, because then I would have two homelands. I am just as comfortable writing in French as in Spanish, at home in both languages. Having two fatherlands is a little difficult though, because the definition of a fatherland is that you die for it, but I have found a definition that suits me. It doesn’t work in every language though, because not every language has two words for langue and langage, which is the case in French and Spanish. The first is the langue maternelle, the mother tongue which you use in writing and in expression. Language, or langage, is much greater in scope – it is the realm of communication, examples of which are the language of the internet and literary language. Language is an exchange of information, of communication, and even of passions – you can even be passionate by text message! Language is constantly evolving, and, of course, I was educated at a time when language was very much written, when it was literary…

 

The book was a sensorial object back then that one touched and manipulated. Today, things are a little different, but I don’t want to make a value judgement. I am used to a certain way of reading. I do think that it is important to say that language does not constitute a homeland, but rather that it transcends the limits and the charms of the mother tongue. Being bilingual is problematic in certain ways, of course, and it is not always easy. Some of my books were written in French, and they changed so much in translation, as if they had changed skin altogether. You can lose time over this, in terms of productivity, in terms of the time that you have to write a given book. You spend a lot more time over a book that needs to change skin. It didn’t happen to all of my books. Some of them had a specific aim which did not change with circumstances. I can write in French in Spain, and in Spanish in Paris – that’s not a problem – but whatever happens each piece of writing has its own life in terms of language. Other books change when they change language. It makes things a little more complicated, but it is entertaining.

Q

The White Review

— And this particular book that you have just published, Une tombe aux creux des nuages, is an anthology of speeches that you gave in German…

A

Jorge Semprun

— It is very much a cosmopolitan book. It was written in French and in Spanish, and I then gave those speeches in German. Depending on whether I wrote a speech in Spanish or in French, the person who translated the first version into German was different. A young lady has been translating from the Spanish for me for a long time now, and someone else translated from the French, and then we work together to rewrite the text in German. I could have written them in German from the start, but it would have been a waste of time. It would be a lot of work and would take a lot of time for me to write in German, compared to French or Spanish.

 

I’ve just come back from Buchenwald, from the camp. There was a commemoration of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation. There were several speakers, and I was asked to make a fifteen-minute speech. It was as it had always been on that hill where the SS had built the camp, ice-cold. I wrote the speech in Spanish, and then I had it translated before correcting it and rewriting it, all in the interest of time. So the book was actually written in French and Spanish. I didn’t amend what I wrote in French. The Spanish was translated by Serge Mestre, who is one of my translators from Spanish. He translated my last book, Vingt ans et un jour. He is a very good translator that I trust.

Q

The White Review

— In this book you reflect on Europe and its memory. What do you think of the relationship of countries such as Spain, France or Germany to their own memory?

A

Jorge Semprun

— There is definitely a generalised problem: every European country has a problem with its memory, even if they are not the same problems. The German people, of course, have the biggest problem because Germany is the country of Nazism. But Spain has the Franquist problem. France has a lesser problem in the sense that since June 1940 it has had a mythological idea of an eternal France, which de Gaulle put into practice much later. The Vichy regime was interpreted as a historical accident by de Gaulle. This actually led to certain aberrations and paradoxes because the Vichy regime’s misdeeds were not recognised until much later under the pretext that it had not really been an incarnation of the true France. ‘That was not France, it does not affect us, it is not our past, we have no reason to draw any conclusions from it.’

 

It was a strange argument, which found its legitimacy in the sole reason that de Gaulle’s obsession – which incidentally he succeeded in imposing on the reality of History with great panache – that France should be perceived as one of the victorious nations. That said, it implied a number of sacrifices, including the myth of the preservation of the prefectural corps. A few prefects were indicted for crimes against humanity, but to begin with it was deemed best to ensure continuity. And de Gaulle managed to do this at a time when the Americans had decided that the administration of liberated France would come under their control! They had created the AMGOT administration, and had even printed money! The arm wrestle between de Gaulle and Giraud and then de Gaulle and the Americans was really close.

 

France’s problem is with its colonial wars, and with Vichy. Remember that one of the first films on the deportations, Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard, only had one shot censored. It’s the shot where you see the French gendarme’s képi, and people said. ‘Oh no, no, France isn’t responsible for this’, and the képi was censored. It is the only piece of censorship in that film. The myth of the French administration’s non-collaborationwas maintained for a long time.

 

Spain has a problem which is reappearing once again. It transited towards democracy with a lot of amnesia. The two watchwords for the transition were amnesty and amnesia. Amnesia was not a political watchword, nor was it a parliamentary law – it was the general will. ‘Let’s forget! The civil war was so brutal that we have to forget, to abolish the past.’ It is a process that we see often in history. You don’t have to go further back then the Edict of Nantes which ended the wars of religion in France, and which said, in its first clause, that it was forbidden to recall the troubles of the past. It was forbidden! It is a normal procedure. But did it not go on for too long? At the moment, we are seeing something completely absurd: the Falange, a totalitarian party which is tolerated by democracy but which is the sole heir of Franquism, has succeeded in taking Judge Garzon to trial because he was preparing a case on the memory of the past and on the crimes of Franquism in general. He has been submitted to a court proceeding; let’s see if they push the case all the way.

 

Germany, I believe, has done a lot of work on its memory, through education, youth… Obviously, they have a major problem to resolve. Germany is a country where everyone knows what happened, and it has taken responsibility for it. I’m not saying that there aren’t still neo-Nazis and negationists who say: ‘You are making it all up because Germany was vanquished and you want to take advantage of our defeat.’ Of course there are. But these are not mass political parties. And the work that is being done in the education system – in secondary schools and universities – and in the mass media is interesting.

 

There are other countries that have a problem with memory from another perspective, that of Stalinism. In Poland, the plane crash that killed a number of Polish leaders shows that the Katyn issue, which has been lurking in the shadows for decades, is still present. It would be good for Europe to become conscious of the problems associated with memory. At the moment, the memory of Europe is incomplete because none of us are able to impose the commemoration of the gulag victims in the various commemorative ceremonies that take place. It isn’t a matter of comparison – they are at once very different and yet very similar things in terms of extermination. It is possible that more people died in the gulag than in the Nazi camps. It’s not the same thing. But the gulag survivors do not have any mechanism in place for commemoration. Books on the gulag, in my opinion, are the most beautiful, if such books can be called beautiful. In any case, the most spectacular book on the memory of deportation is the Russian book, Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov. People often bring up the books written by old deportees of the Nazi camps such as Primo Levi’s wonderful book, but no one ever talks about Shalamov, because his story is not part of our European collective memory. There is still some work to be done on this memory.

Q

The White Review

— And this work needs to be done on a European level…

A

Jorge Semprun

— Absolutely, it would be good for this reflection on the idea of memory to be done on a European level to coordinate everything and give it all a meaning that is positive for the future. We have come out of those events, and it is thus worth us carrying on in a manner that allows us to purge ourselves of our past.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that Europe’s collective memory should be built on both anti-fascism and anti-communism?

A

Jorge Semprun

— Europe has been built on a critique of Nazism, of Fascism, of authoritarian dictatorships such as the Franquist regime, and on the immediate memory of a period when, through its satellite countries, Stalinism was present in part of Europe. Today this Soviet empire has collapsed. The countries that were under its influence are now European countries. Of course, in every possible way, the EU’s twenty-seven countries are very different, but they do have both a common and different memory of what totalitarianism can mean: for some it means Nazism, for others Stalinism, as in Poland, Hungary, or Romania.

 

There is another point that is perhaps even more important, and which applies to everyone – all of this is a construct, in spite of the cultural diversity which must been maintained. The dream of a single European idiom is nefarious. It is imperative that texts written in so-called ‘minority’ languages in Europe continue to be distributed on the same level as writing in English, French, or Spanish, which are much more universal languages. Any ‘minority’ language, such as Slovenian or Slovakian, has a right to express itself, and should be supported and helped. Our common European identity is cultural, because of our shared past, but it is primarily political because of democracy. No country can integrate Europe without being a democracy in the most precise sense of the word: political pluralism, freedom of elections, freedom of expression, freedom of the press… It is no longer a formality; it is Europe’s essence. There is a beautiful sentence in the Declaration to the European Council of Laeken of 2001 which says: ‘Europe’s only frontier is democracy.’

Q

The White Review

— Does this mean you are in favour of promoting regional languages such as Basque or Catalan?

A

Jorge Semprun

— Spain is an unusual country in this respect. It didn’t experience any of the advantages or defects of Jacobinism. The advantages are obvious: the French Revolution took politics and culture to extreme lengths, and even to an extreme in geographical terms because Jacobinism was expansive and wanted to impose human rights all over the world in an often aggressive manner. And it had a negative side to it, which was that its centralising intent was emasculating to regional languages as the French language was imposed as the national tongue at the expense of regional languages. It goes without saying that French is more important in the history of the world than Breton.

 

I read a tract by Jean Zay, the Popular Front’s Minister for Education, who recommended that Breton be eradicated in Brittany. When you look at the statistics of the dead during the First World War, it is surprising to see that the mortality rates in the French army were highest among the Breton regiments. By analysing this in more detail, you realise that one of the cause of this – it wasn’t just Breton enthusiasm when launching an attack – was that the soldiers didn’t understand the officers’ orders. Paul Claudel wrote in his Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher, an admirably pathetic work, that Breton soldiers who didn’t really understand French used to cry out the only French word that they knew when they were attacking the German trenches: ‘Ouest-Etat!’, which is the name of the train company that manned the Breton network. I find that tragic.

 

Basque and Provençal were also eradicated. Jacobinism did have the positive effect of unifying the French nation, which had a massive influence, even if it was perverted later in its imperialist and colonial forms. It was, nevertheless, thanks to this that France became a world power.  It does have a dark side though, and it shattered many things, and, if I’m not mistaken, France is one of the only countries in Europe that still hasn’t ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It’s astonishing.

 

In Spain, Castilian established itself when Castile discovered America. It was the petty Castilian peasantry that went to America to make a fortune, and, all at once, they gave passed on their language to hundreds of millions of people that speak it today all over the world. It is a language that is growing faster than English at the moment. Even in the US, more and more people are speaking Spanish. The Hispanics, as they say, are a minority that has a growing influence on the politics of the United States. It is a historical fact. Catalan is at least as old a literary language as Castilian, if not older. Basque is even older than both of these, even if did not develop a written form until the 19th century. Galician, like Portuguese, is a very old language that comes from Latin. All of these languages are recognised as official languages in Spain. One can use these languages in their regions.

Q

The White Review

— In this book there is a passage where you talk about Marx. You draw a distinction between his theories and the history of Marxism-Leninism, and you say that some of his arguments are more relevant to our time than to his. Do you think this explains the revival of a certain type of radical communism in philosophy?

A

Jorge Semprun

— Unfortunately not. It’s for other reasons. First things first – there was a time when Marx was working towards what was eventually published as Das Kapital. It’s a book that Marx never finished: Engels completed it using the detailed notes he had left. It is an unfinished work, apart from the first part, of which he even oversaw the French translation. The other two parts were written up from rough drafts. And at the same time, he was also working on a huge project, which he never finished and which was published in 1939 and again in 1941 – a bad time, war time – in Moscow, far from the Western world. It is called the Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, or Grundrissein German. It’s a bit like the draft of Das Kapital, but it’s also more than that, because he analyses the entirety of capitalism and its evolution, and he speaks about what capital could become beyond capitalism in its current state. There are certain things about capital that he predicts which ring truer now than they did at the time: the role of science in production, the evolution of work, the transition from an absolute surplus value that is obtained in terms of working time to a relative surplus value that is achieved by the productivity of work. That is modernity, and he analyses it wonderfully. Unfortunately, not a single Communist or Social-Democrat party used this idea in their manifestos.

 

That side to Marx is still valid today, but it doesn’t deter from the fact that he constantly made mistakes in his forecasts because he had a very curious apocalyptic relationship to time. When he understood something, he believed that it had become reality.  If it had become clear in his mind, it was clear for the rest of the world. In 1858, in a letter to Engels, he said that the bourgeoisie could at long last disappear because it had achieved its historic mission, the creation of a global market. A global market, in 1858! It was true, but premonitory: a century and a half later, the globalisation of markets is still not finished!

 

But he did see reality, and posited that the next revolution would obviously be a socialist one, and his main problems were whether or not this revolution would be able to maintain itself in a world that was still dominated by the bourgeoisie, and whether Europe’s sole involvement would suffice to ensure its success. In 1858, he was already thinking that Europe was too small a territory for revolution and that the whole world should knuckle down.  This is an example of his brilliance, but it also shows his somewhat quirky and bizarre relationship to time, does it not? And that is a facet of Marx’s thought that has been seldom explored. André Gorz did before he died, in Farewell to the Working Class.

 

The current revival has nothing to do with this. It isn’t based on Marx’s theories – on the contrary it is a revitalisation of Leninism. Leninism is very important, but it is a betrayal of Marx. Marxism is a class theory. Leninism is party theory. One of the last sentences in The Communist Manifestosays that Communists don’t need a party separate from others, whereas in actual fact, for Communists, the party became more important than class. Without the party, there is nothing. I’m not going to list everything but Lenin also betrayed Marx’s thought on imperialism. Marx started to analyse imperialism, but he never said that it was the last stage and that the death of capitalism came after it. He said that it was a phase after which something much worse than revolution might happen, but he didn’t say that it would necessarily be revolution itself. There are a certain number of points on which Leninism objectively betrayed Marxism – I’m not saying it was deliberate – or at least renounced some of Marxism’s essential qualities.

 

Today’s Marxist renewal is founded on the revitalisation of Leninism and not on Marx’s thought. That is why we can say that there is a ‘Marxist hypothesis’, but isn’t it maybe a  dead pledge? We shall see in the years to come. In any case, I don’t read Badiou with much peace of mind because I remember his writings from an earlier period. People can change, of course, but when you write an opera called L’Echarpe Rouge(The Red Scarf), a Stalinist opera… That it was an opera makes things worse. In a theoretical piece, you can conceal the poverty of your thought, but in a cheap opera you cannot. And Alain Badiou still presents himself as a philosopher and playwright… Read that opera. In Spanish, which is a more metaphysical language than French, we don’t say ‘Les bras m’en tombent’, but ‘L’âme m’en tombe aux pieds’ (‘Se me cae el alma a los pies’).

Q

The White Review

— People of your generation who were Communists often became sceptical or disenchanted. One does not sense this disenchantment with you. You are still politically an optimist.

A

Jorge Semprun

— Well, I’ve found a formula that suits my old age and that Yves Montand liked: ‘I have lost my beliefs, but I have kept my illusions.’ I no longer have beliefs of the kind that Marxism gives you. Those are absurd beliefs, even if they are clearly stimulating. When you destroy the Marxism-Leninism that lurks within you, you don’t also destroy yourself. You rebuild yourself. But I have kept my illusions: the world doesn’t have to be unfair and unbearable, and we can fix certain things. I still have those illusions, perhaps more than ever.

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps more so than your peers…
A

Jorge Semprun

— I don’t like to compare myself to them, but I can’t live without illusions, even knowing that they may be illusions. But I speak of illusions as utopias that are necessary and practical. In Spanish, we say: ‘Don’t expect a birch tree to yield pears.’ I think that you should expect the birch to yield pears, because otherwise the pear tree won’t yield anything.
 

Introduction and translation by Jacques Testard. Click here to read the original French version.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jacques Testard is the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions and a founding editor of The White Review.

Pierre Testard is a journalist and is the former editor-in-chief of nonfiction.fr.

Gwénaël Pouliquen is a freelance editor and critic based in Paris.