BOOK REVIEW / Courage enough to touch the blackest in the pit: The cattle truck - Jorge Semprun: Serif, pounds 8.99

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The Independent Online
STILL in his teens, Jorge Semprun fled over the border from his native Spain into France, a refugee from fascism. When the Nazis invaded France, he joined the Resistance, was arrested, and was sent to Buchenwald. He survived to write distinguished fiction in both Spanish and French, and to be the Minister of Culture in the Spanish socialist government from 1988 to 1991.

The Cattle Truck is about a young refugee from Spain who joins the Resistance, is arrested and sent to Buchenwald, and survives. To that extent, this novel, first published 30 years ago in France and the United States, is autobiographical. Only Jorge Semprun knows, of course, to what extent the thoughts of 'Gerard', the young 'Spanish Red' whose interior monologue occupies the first 217 pages of this elegant and powerful book, are the actual thoughts that went through his own head; in so far as the middle-aged novelist could recapture the mentality of a 19-year-old on the threshold of death.

What can be said is that he has succeeded brilliantly. As the train bumps slowly east for five days, from Compiegne, down the Moselle valley and across blacked-out Germany to the eagle-topped gates of hell on the outskirts of Goethe's Weimar, Gerard confronts the present, the future and the past; his life, and Europe's.

The present is agonising. 120 men, most of them captured Resistance fighters, are crammed into the cattle truck, bruised, sleepless, thirsty and scared. They are reduced to using compresses moistened with urine to resuscitate men who have fainted. Sometimes one of the older men dies, of wounds or of a heart that is not strong enough to resist what amounts to torture on the move.

Gerard talks intermittently to one man, an older, simpler, working-class recruit to the Resistance, who dies just before the train reaches Buchenwald. He wonders fearfully about the future. More often he recalls the past, from his childhood to the university, and the Resistance escapades that led to his arrest and torture. As the train rattles through the Moselle vineyards, he has a sort of epiphany, a vision of what life might be, but also of what Europe ought to be.

The complexity of the book's construction, however, is greater than that, for the thoughts of Gerard-in-the-cattle truck are crosscut with his consciousness in at least two other time zones: his experiences immediately after he was liberated from the camp, and his feelings about the camp as he looked back on it from a holiday in Italy, at some time between his liberation and the time when he finally writes the book.

This complex structure is not sheer look-at-me virtuosity, however. It is the essence of what Semprun has to say about the workings of time, anticipation, memory and oblivion. Not for nothing does Gerard, the student-turned-soldier, let his mind drift to Proust when he recalls the time when he, too, went to bed early.

Yet this is not a literary intellectual's precious embroidery of the horrors of deportation. It is a clean, straight look at the eschatology of wickedness, the meaning of death, the book of a man who has triumphed over death because he had the courage to confront it. It does not evade the horrors and the cruelties, the beatings and the dogs, the murdered Jewish children and the emaciated bodies stacked 12 feet high. Nor does he linger on horror for its own sake. With what is not, I think, a patronising national generalisation to call a Spanish detachment, he touches the blackest of the pit, and is not defiled.

Fifty years after the nightmare and 30 years after Semprun first wrote it, we are now in a time when the memory of the kingdom of death is being manipulated by those who want to use it for politics or for revenge, when it is becoming fashionable to hint that all Europe was guilty, or that no one was. But Semprun offers without bad faith his truth: there were devils, but there were also human beings. All it takes to be a man, he is saying, all it ever took, we always uncomfortably know, is courage: more courage than most of us have, but not more than Jorge Semprun and many others were able to find.