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
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

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

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee