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  • Jorge Semprun's Broken Mirror:The Broader Text of Resistance, the Shoah, and Camps in L'Écriture ou la vie and Le Retour de Carola Neher
  • Van Kelly

In January 1944, the resister Jorge Semprun was deported from France to Buchenwald. He survived to see the camp liberated on 11 April 1945, but did not publish his experience until his first novel, or more precisely his first "autofiction," Le Grand Voyage of 1963, which tells of the deportation of "Gérard," member of a Special Operations Executive (Buckmaster) maquis in Burgundy, though the narration includes segments devoted to the Holocaust per se, notably the S.S.'s brutal execution of a group of Jewish children on their arrival at Buchenwald.1 The resister's perspective remains primary in L'Évanouissement (1967), with some reference as well to experiences as a clandestine Communist agent in postwar Spain (1978). Subsequently, Semprun published several works on his captivity: Quel beau dimanche (1980), L'Écriture ou la vie (1994), Le Retour de Carola Neher (1998), and Le Mort qu'il faut (2002). These works broaden to embrace many topics including racial deportations, Auschwitz, his family's involvement in the Spanish Republic, his experience of Buchenwald as "Red Spaniard" protégé of the camp's German Communist shadow hierarchy, after the liberation his role in the Spanish Communist Party, disillusionment with Marxism, expulsion from the Party in 1964,2 and critiques of Stalinism and the Gulag, which were vectors for his own sense of complicity.3

Semprun's work echoes Henry Rousso's chronology of the Vichy Syndrome, but only in part. In L'Écriture ou la vie, Semprun recounts the "unfinished mourning" that kept him from writing about Buchenwald more than a decade after his liberation. Moreover, the return of the memory of racial deportations, "la mémoire juive" or beginning of "Obsession" in the Vichy Syndrome, indelibly marks L'Écriture ou la vie, overcoming the limited view afforded of the Nazi machine by Buchenwald, deadly but without gas chambers and dominated by political prisoners.4 By contrast, Semprun's denunciation of the Gulag, "[l]'horizon du communisme, incontournable,"5 is his version of Rousso's third stage, the "broken mirror," and this orientation transcends Vichy and the Syndrome, though as Rousso himself insists, "Seule une perspective qui transcende les frontières peut rendre sa véritable dimension au souvenir de la dernière guerre" (22). [End Page 20]

Semprun's broad reach right and left relates directly to his narrative technique. From Le Grand Voyage onward, he develops an interlocking-ring narration, based on successive flashbacks and flashforwards, where multiple strands of his ethical remembering touch and intertwine. I will first discuss Part One, Chapters Two and Four of L'Écriture ou la vie, because of allusions to Kant, Goethe, Blum, Heidegger, Brecht, and the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. These writerly memory loops with their tangents define Semprun's ethical crux, which he revisits in Le Retour de Carola Neher, performed in 1995 at Weimar. The play expands to include genocides in ex-Yugoslavia via coincidence with the term "Muslim" or "musulman," referring to exhausted prisoners on the verge of extinction in the Nazi camps. By revisiting his memory sites, Semprun works through to the camps' wider dimensions. His "repetition of the same," says Ursula Tidd, is a "bearing witness [that] carries the instant outside itself, projecting it into the future, addressing it to the Other" ("Infinity" 407). Rather than compulsive repetition, this is a truer register of his multi-voiced score or palimpsest: "plus j'écris, plus la mémoire me revient," says Semprun, "De là ma théorie que c'est une écriture inépuisable, à la fois impossible et inépuisable. On ne peut pas tout dire, mais on n'aura jamais tout dit. On peut dire à chaque fois davantage."6

Semprun's ethical foundation

Part One, Chapter Two of L'Écriture ou la vie condenses Semprun's ethical loop. This crux manifests itself in the aftermath of Auschwitz, as recounted to Buchenwald detainees by a survivor of the Sonderkommando that emptied gas chambers of their corpses:

Il m'a semblé alors, dans le silence qui a suivi le récit du...


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