Books: The stucco facade that saved a life

Shusha Guppy follows the long journey of a camp survivor from silence to serenity; Literature or Life by Jorge Semprun, translated by Linda Coverdale, Viking, pounds 16.99

On 11 April 1945, Buchenwald was liberated by the Allied armies. Three officers, two English and one French, arrived at the camp to take charge of the operations: "They stood amazed before me, and suddenly, in their terror-stricken gaze, I saw myself - in their horror," recalls Jorge Semprun nearly half a century on. "For two years I had lived without a face. No mirrors in Buchenwald."

Born in 1923 in Madrid, into a Republican family, Semprun was a Civil War refugee in Paris when the war broke out. In 1942, a budding poet and Sorbonne student of philosophy, he dropped out to join the Resistance. A year later, he was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured, and deported to Buchenwald.

What followed was "living death". Even those who survived "had not escaped death, but crossed through it ... we were not survivors, but ghosts, revenants". Semprun owed his own survival, he assumed, to his fluency in German (he worked in the camp administration) and to what Primo Levi called "an insatiable curiosity". Back in Paris he begins a novel, yet "I realise that the joy of writing could never irradicate the despair of Memory ... Only forgetting could save me". It is the encounter in a train with Lorene, a beautiful Swiss woman, their romance and the rediscovery of his body, "not in the strict economy of survival but in the largesse of love", that makes him choose life.

For 16 years Semprun did not write. Instead he joined the Spanish Communist Party, became a member of its Central Committee and lived clandestinely in Madrid. Then in 1963 he published The Long Journey, a novel based on his deportation to Buchenwald. It was an international success but a few months later he was expelled from the Party by Dolores Ibarruri herself - the famous La Pasionaria - for his "revisionist" views.

Semprun began Literature or Life, his journey beyond death, on 11 April 1987, the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald and the day that Primo Levi committed suicide. He soon abandoned it to become minister of culture in Felipe Gonzalez's social democratic government. A year later he resigned and returned to Paris, and to his manuscript. In a final chapter he recounts his trip to Buchenwald in 1992. There, a guide gives him a copy of his 1944 matriculation paper on which his profession is declared "Stukaster" (stucco worker) instead of "Student". The official who had filled the form on his arrival had saved his life by this little lie. As a student, he would have been considered useless and sent to the gas chamber.

In the last months of the war, Semprun witnessed prisoners arriving from Auschwitz ahead of the Russian advance, not knowing that "the liberators of Auschwitz were the creators of the Gulag". That knowledge would have saved him, he believes, "years of unproductive delusion, of fruitless struggle to renew and reform Communism". This is the only expression of regret at his involvement with the "idiocy of communism". Buchenwald reopened three months after Liberation, under the auspices of the KGB, and survived to 1956.

Memoir, autobiography, philosophical reflection, Literature or Life has the sweep of a symphony as it moves back and forth in time, from Semprun's privileged childhood in Spain to his present position as one of France's most eminent men of letters. He lets a profusion of memories, dreams, nightmares invade his narrative: the German voice shouting over the loudspeakers "Shut down the crematorium!" before the arrival of the Allies; the Kaddish he hears coming from the mountain of corpses to be bulldozed into a common grave, which enables him to save the man; the Spanish Civil War veteran dying of dysentery after the Liberation, repeating "No hay drecho!" - it's not fair!

Literature or Life achieves what Semprun set out to do all those years ago: a Dostoievskian exploration of good and evil in the light of human freedom. It deserves a place beside Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Shalamov's Tales From Kolyma, while Linda Coverdale's translation conveys something of the lyrical eloquence of Semprun's French. Literature or Life? After reading this remarkable book, the answer is both!

Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?