cover image Literature or Life

Literature or Life

Jorge Semprun. Viking Books, $24.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87288-6

Thirty years after The Long Voyage, his haunting autobiographical novel about his deportation to Buchenwald at the age of 20, Semprun has written another autobiographical work. This one explores his experiences trying to return to life after having ""crossed through death."" A sensitive, vital young man fighting in the French Resistance, Semprun was captured by the Nazis. Before the war, he had spied for the Spanish Communists during Franco's regime (before being expelled from the Party) and had written novels and screenplays. Even 50 years after the camps, Semprun still feels less a survivor than a ghost, an Ancient Mariner figure separated from the rest of life by the incommunicable burden of his memories. Pushing autobiographical fiction to the limits, Semprun compellingly reexamines significant episodes in his life from Buchenwald's liberation in 1945 to his only return there in 1992, for a documentary. In 1945, he showed the camp's crematory to a group of Frenchwomen who had mistaken it for the kitchen (an event also briefly described in The Long Voyage). Semprun uses a densely allusive writing style to draw out his sense of historical ironies. Rich with acutely felt observations and many examples of his sustaining love of literature and philosophy, as exemplified in the works of Andr Malraux, Louis Aragon, Ren Char and Martin Heidegger, Literature or Life is a memoir that employs novelistic elliptical structure and allusive literary touches in its personal search for life's meaning after surviving the unthinkable. (Mar.) FYI: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics is simultaneously reissuing The Long Voyage.