Postcard from Paris: Living only to forget: Jorge Semprun speaks memories with Amanda Hopkinson

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The Independent Culture
WHO LIVES in ground floor flats in Paris, I wonder, climbing laboriously up what seems the umpteenth staircase on the Rue de l'Universite, well-placed for views over the Seine, the Musee d'Orsay, the Invalides. In the hallway, suitcases are gathered for a flight to Barcelona: Jorge Semprun is still living between his home and his host country.

Born in Madrid in 1923, Semprun's family moved to France in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Aged 17, he joined the French Resistance, and in 1944 was picked up by the Germans and transported to Buchenwald. The experience of transportation and six months' incarceration provided the basis of his literary obsession and his literary reputation, which rests principally on two books: What a Beautiful Sunday] and The Cattle Truck.

When Semprun returned to Madrid in the Fifties, it was to work underground for the Communist Party against the Franco dictatorship. This in turn generated The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez, detailing the events leading up to his expulsion from the Party in the Sixties. In Paris once more, he finally published the work he'd first attempted and despairingly abandoned in the summer of 1945, after General Patton's forces liberated Buchenwald.

'For the first 17 years of my life I never doubted that I was a writer, even though I'd written nothing - just the usual youthful fragments. And then, what was I going to write if not about Buchenwald? Some little romantic novel, about first love or rites of passage? Primo Levi said that in writing one is liberated and returns to life, whereas I didn't return to life but remained locked in death.' Rejecting the possibility of undergoing psychotherapy he prescribed himself the 'autocura' of political activity. Though writing depends on memory, staying alive can depend on forgetting.

Semprun's long years of Communist activism dovetailed with his literary endeavours in writing screenplays, always with a political and popular dimension. Z, The Confession and La Guerre est Finie all won him credit. 'I'd say that if writing compelled me to return to my memories, the politics at the very least led me to the illusion of a future' - a future he then found betrayed by Stalinism.

When he was invited by a German television company to be interviewed at Buchenwald last year, Semprun at first refused, having determined never to return. But on consideration, he recognised that it might provide a way to reconcile the dichotomy between writing and living, as well as the cyclical conclusion to his work-inprogress, Ecriture ou Vie. He vested hopes in another kind of future hope in bringing two of his grandchildren to accompany him. 'What was different about Buchenwald was that it wasn't only a Nazi concentration camp. That was closed down in June 1945. In September it reopened, this time as a Soviet camp for dissidents opposed to the Soviet occupation. That was only closed down in 1950 with the creation of the German Democratic Republic. So Buchenwald is an extraordinary place, twinning the two memories.'

Semprun encountered a different 'twinning' on his return in 1992. On the one hand the camp 'remained a hideous memorial, something heavy and Satanic, both horrible and terrible'. On the other, where the sheds and the crematorium had been destroyed, 'Nature had been admitted to erase all traces of that mass (Soviet) cemetery with its tens of thousands of anonymous corpses'. As he stood there his sense of the present was restored by suddenly noticing there was also something changed and strange about the place: '. . . the sound of birdsong in the countryside, for previously the smoke and stink of the crematorium had kept the birds at bay. Now the birds had returned to the woods and suddenly the noise of hundreds and thousands of birds is the noise of life returning to Buchenwald.'

For the first time, with the story of Ecriture ou Vie, he is providing his own translation. Having previously preferred the discipline of writing first in French, he now prefers the concept of 'two versions' of the the book to that of one translation. Semprun has recently alternated his two homelands while always retaining a Spanish identity; he is 'more of a Frenchman in Madrid and a Spaniard in Paris'. Having chosen never to play a part in domestic French politics he accepted the invitation of Felipe Gonzalez' government to be Minister of Culture and oversee the Barcelona Olympics, the creation of the AVE high- speed rail-link and Seville's Expo '92. If it all seems a far cry from his earlier political activism, this is a view he disagrees with violently. 'For the view from my window in the ministerial house I was given overlooked that of the house in which I was brought up. Same street, same windows, same balconies, on the same level. I had returned to my past.'

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