The Long Voyage (Grand Voyage)

views updated

THE LONG VOYAGE (Grand voyage)

Memoir by Jorge Semprun, 1963

Published in 1963 in France and first translated and published in the USA in 1964 and again in 1994, The Long Voyage is the first of Jorge Semprun's Holocaust narratives. It won the Formentor Prize. Like all Semprun's works on this subject, it is carefully crafted and self-consciously literary. It is the story, roughly, of Semprun's journey in 1943 from France to Buchenwald. Originally a Spanish Communist who had fled Franco, he was captured as a member of the resistance in 1943 under the alias of Gérard and imprisoned first in France and then in Germany. The journey to Buchenwald in early 1944 takes five days and nights. The key relationship of the "present" time line, the long journey, is "the guy from Semur" who becomes his companion during the journey. Although they (probably) do not exchange names the "guy from Semur" dies in his arms on the last night of the journey. "Don't leave me, pal," are his last words. The final section of the book, narrating his arrival at Buchenwald, is, unlike the rest, told in the third person, reflecting not only Semprun's series of aliases but also the change of self that the camps engender.

Like all of Semprun's work, however, the account is much more about the memory of these events and the other events of his life and also the writing and representation of these events. The book jumps about in its chronology, slipping from events in the main time line (the journey to Buchenwald) back to his time in the resistance, forward to his time in the camp—its liberation and later. These jumps happen suddenly and often with very little or no textual sign of the jump. Different conversations from different times merge with each other—an interwoven tapestry of past and present. The book disrupts the idea of the present constructed by the generic assumptions of the realist novel and so begins to reflect what Saul Friedländer called "extraordinary mechanism of memory." "You're tossing the salad, voices are reverberating in the courtyard … you let your mind wander … and suddenly, like a scalpel slicing cleanly in to the soft tender flesh, the memory explodes … And if someone, seeing you there, petrified, asks 'What are you thinking?' you have to answer: 'Nothing,' of course."

Semprun displays both understanding and a granite hardness. After liberation an elderly German woman in Weimar tells him that both her sons are dead. He replies: "I hope so, I really hope they're dead … I haven't the strength to tell her that I understand her sorrow, but I'm happy both her sons are dead, I mean I'm happy the German Army is wiped out." Indeed, this is a theme in the book: the way in which people find themselves fighting and could choose not to but do, in fact, choose to fight, making conflict inevitable.

The book has some terrible moments. The worst, perhaps, is his initiation into the horror of the Holocaust: the murder of a group of Polish Jewish children by the SS and their dogs. Semprun builds up to this epiphanitic event. The awful story "has never been told … [it has] lain buried in my memory like some mortal treasure preying on it with a sterile suffering."

Finally, Semprun—who had been a very high-ranking Communist—is also a philosopher. This book, quietly, perhaps, takes issue with Robert Anteleme's much more celebrated account of the Holocaust, The Human Species. "Actu-ally, we didn't need the camps to understand that man is a being capable of the most noble as well as the basest acts. How banal can you get!" Instead, here and in Semprun's later Literature or Life, the question is one not of inhumanity but of radical evil. The "long voyage" is not just a five-day journey in a cattle truck, it's a journey to the universe of the camps and back.

—Robert Eaglestone

About this article

The Long Voyage (Grand Voyage)

Updated About content Print Article