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  • Jorge Semprún: Memory’s Long Voyage by Daniela Omlor
  • Avril Tynan
Jorge Semprún: Memory’s Long Voyage. By Daniela Omlor. (Iberian and Latin American Studies: The Arts, Literature and Identity, 5.) Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014. 232pp.

Public discussion and opinion of the Holocaust escalated in the 1960s in France; the early published works of Jorge Semprún coincided with the expansion of this literary canon. Daniela Omlor’s study appears at a time when bold moves away from the generic autobiographical readings of the concentration camp experience are finally being accepted, as she sets out to ‘examine Semprún’s works as the literary texts that they are’ (p. 20). Omlor indicates the problems of categorization that have afflicted criticism of Semprún to date, including a propensity to marginalize those works that deviate from Philippe Lejeune’s autobiographical pact, as well as the sweeping omissions of any works deemed to lack biographical consequence or testimonial value, or that do not appear to set Buchenwald as the central narrative issue. As such, all of Semprún’s key texts are grouped thematically, with memory identified at the core of his expansive corpus. It is refreshing to see such attention lavished on previously disregarded narratives, and in particular L’Évanouissement, which deservedly receives a long-awaited analysis and incorporation alongside Semprún’s better-known works. In the Introduction, Omlor distinguishes trauma as a ‘specific facet’ of memory (p. 28), avoiding a diagnostic approach all [End Page 111] too commonly applied in previous research that posits curative literature above style and substance. This liberated approach finds its climax in readings of L’Algarabie, Adieu, vive clarté . . ., and Vingt ans et un jour, which invert the typically imposed chronologies of childhood, exile, and Buchenwald to demonstrate the retroactive applications of memory, culminating in an original interpretation of romanticized nostalgia. Changes in Semprún’s awareness and acceptance of Communist values are defined as a principal factor influencing his narratives, and each chapter demonstrates how transformations in the author’s understanding of the self accordingly influence the representations of his memories. Furthermore, the specificity of language and place to the capability of memory is shrewdly highlighted in analysis across different narratives, offering insight into the particularity of Semprún as an exile and writer. Ultimately, Omlor proves that it is possible to write the self without recourse to autobiography, and that the whole range of Semprún’s texts should be acknowledged as an evolving mirror-image of their ever-changing author. Nonetheless, it must be noted that there is a weighty bias in the fourth chapter, which purports to examine politics and memory through L’Autobiographie de Federico Sánchez and Netchaïev est de retour, but rewards the former with far more analysis than the latter, despite Netchaïev’s clever demonstration of one potential trajectory of a young Semprún, and the feelings of loss and terror that accompanied his own disillusionment with the Communist party. Omlor’s knowledge of French, Spanish, German, and English makes her integration of secondary literature fascinatingly astute; and systematic recognition and reappraisal of previous work creates a concise defence of her ideas and interpretations. Omlor’s work competes with publications from very established academics, most notably Ursula Tidd, but her volume is brilliantly executed and provides a timely and enlightening insight into a demonstrably fascinating author.

Avril Tynan
Royal Holloway, University of London