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  • Authoritative Witnessing and the Control of Memory:On Jorge Semprun's L'écriture ou la vie
  • Sharon Marquart

Ça n'effraie pas, l'autorité, ça rassure plutôt.

Jorge Semprun

The opening scene of Jorge Semprun's 1994 witnessing narrative L'écriture ou la vie describes in detail the first instance in which the text's main character, "Jorge," is faced with telling people who did not experience Buchenwald about the horrors of camp life.1 It is the day after the camp's liberation by Allied Forces, and the twenty-one year-old Spaniard and member of the French Resistance encounters three terrified officers in British uniforms while he is standing guard outside one of the camp's former SS barracks. Two of the men are British, one of them French, and they all stare wide-eyed at the young survivor, waiting to hear what he has to say.

The passage's narrator carefully scrutinizes the French soldier before Jorge begins to speak. His demeanor is both joyful and fearful; a horrified look in the Frenchman's eyes contrasts starkly with the triumphant way in which he is wearing his French military badges. "Il doit avoir mon âge, quelques années de plus. Je pourrais sympathiser," Semprun narrates (15). Jorge's first words are directly addressed to the Frenchman. "Qu'y a-t-il," Jorge drily and irritatedly asks. "Le silence de la forêt qui vous étonne autant?" The soldier turns his head to look at the trees, and pricks his ears in response to the question. The British soldiers obediently follow his lead. "Non, ce n'est pas le silence," the narrator states. "Ils n'avaient rien remarqué, pas entendu le silence. C'est moi qui les épouvante, rien d'autre, visiblement." Though the [End Page 147] officers probably perceived the survivor's Russian boots and German rifle as "reassuring" signs of authority at the time, the narrator surmises, it must be the look in Jorge's eyes that they find so terrifying. "Plus d'oiseaux," Jorge continues. "La fumée du crématoire les a chassés, dit-on. Jamais d'oiseaux dans cette forêt." The three wide-eyed officers listen attentively, and, the narrator guesses, try to understand Jorge's message. When Jorge further explains that it was the smell of burnt flesh that drove the birds away from the forest—"[l]'odeur de chair brûlée, c'est ça!" he exclaims—, the three already terrified men jump in horror. Though the three soldiers remain in Jorge's presence, they are unable to look at him for the rest of the time he bears witness to his experience of Buchenwald.

Witnessing narratives, whether oral or written, play crucial roles in transmitting the horrors of atrocity to those who are fortunate enough not to have experienced them. Much scholarship on survivor testimonies has focused on the challenging task with which readers and listeners are faced when they engage witnesses and their terrifying texts. In their landmark work on the genre, Testimony, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub suggest that those who listen to or read narratives about "extreme human pain" and "massive psychic trauma" embark on "a journey fraught with dangers" because, through the act of listening to or reading the words of survivors, people can come to experience trauma themselves (57, 72). Felman and Laub define witnessing as a performative speech act that involves an "intimate bond" between a speaker and a listener, and say that the role of the listener in this relation is to be a "blank screen on which a traumatic event comes to be inscribed" (57). But, because "[t]here is so much destruction recounted, so much death, so much loss, so much hopelessness" in survivor narratives (72), they suggest that readers and listeners frequently experience "a need, an urgency to pull back, to withdraw to a safer place," one in which they can protect themselves and "maintain a sense of safety in the face of trauma" (73).

The opening passage of L'écriture ou la vie points to a different kind of relation between witnesses and their listeners that I consider to be a mise-en-abyme of the...


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