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!