What a Beautiful Sunday! (Quel Beau Dimanche)
WHAT A BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY! (Quel beau Dimanche)
Memoir by Jorge Semprun, 1980
The second of Jorge Semprun's books about the Holocaust to be translated, this book, published as Quel beau Dimanche in 1980 and in English translation in 1982, picks up and develops many of his key themes and formalistic devices from The Long Voyage. Again it is thoughtfully crafted and literary; again it is as much about memory and the retelling of the events as the events themselves.
The basic time frame is one Sunday—in fact, part of one Sunday—in Buchenwald, where Semprun is imprisoned. As a Spanish Communist arrested for being part of the French resistance, Semprun is connected and in part protected by the camp's Communist underground. On this particular Sunday, however, he is assigned to a task outside the camp, and his attention is attracted to a tree. "A tree, just that, in its immediate splendour, in the transparent stillness of the present." As the memoir progresses the tree begins to take on a totemic significance. (Is it Goethe's oak in Weimar and so symbolic of German civilization? No, Goethe's oak is—physically and symbolically—inside the boundaries of the camp.) It is a sign of that which is beautiful outside the universe of the camp and of oppression, a sign of some form of hope. "I felt that with all the strength of my rushing blood that my death would not deprive that tree of its radiant beauty."
As in his other accounts, however, the "beautiful Sunday" is only a starting point, an acknowledged narrative device to bind together a much wider, more comprehensive and contextual memoir of his whole life and political engagements. As in The Long Voyage the narrative shifts through time without warning, but unlike that book this account goes into much more detail about his political activities, especially those after the war as a high-ranking member of the (underground) Spanish Communist Party. It covers his activities as a secret agent in Spain, his encounters with European and Russian Communists, various show trials and internal power struggles, his growing intellectual and political disaffection, and his eventual fall from grace. An honest account, the book does not let Semprun escape his own criticisms. A particularly fascinating series of parallels (that do not suggest that they are the same, however) are drawn between the Nazis and the totalitarianism of the Communists. Semprun is moved deeply by Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales and is scathing of the hypocrisy of French Communists' attempts to cover up or censor discussions of the gulags. In line with this the book also has a number of more philosophical and political discussions that show not only his growing moral revulsion to Communism as practiced but also his increasing intellectual disagreement with Marxist concepts. That said, he is also aware of the power of Communism to inspire hope and lead people—in the Spanish Civil War, in World War II—to perform acts of resistance and great courage.
This book, then, uses the experiences of a Communist resister in Buchenwald to reflect on the political and intellectual struggles that shaped much of the twentieth century from the perspective of a man deeply involved in these struggles. It is also about the memory and writing of these struggles. When he writes that there "is no such thing as an innocent memory. Not for me anymore," he means both that memories of heroism and defiance in the name of Communism are double-edged (due, not least, to the gulags and the purges) and that their representation is never straightforward; the past is bound up with the present. Both the form and content of this book reveal this.