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The Death of Jorge Semprun

Though the mainstream American press apparently doesn’t see it that way, one of the more extraordinary figures of 20th century died a few days ago in Paris. His name was Jorge Semprun. 

The son of a prominent Republican leader in Spain (and the grandson of the father of Spain's modern conservative movement), Semprun was exiled to France during the Spanish Civil War.

As a young student in Paris he became involved with the French Underground, was captured, and sent to the Buchenwald prison camp.  

He survived Buchenwald and, during the late forties and fifties became a leader of the Spanish Communist Party, then working to destabilize the Franco regime through clandestine activity.  

He spent much of this period of his life as an undercover operative in Spain under the constant threat of death. 

His life changed dramatically in the 1960s. He questioned the Stalinist line of the Spanish Communist party and was expelled from its ranks. This abrupt change led him to a brilliant career as a screenwriter, novelist and memoirist.  He also served as Spain's Minister of Culture from 1989 to 1992 in the socialist government of Felipe González.

He is perhaps best  known for his memoirs and highly autobiographical fiction, works which place him in the first tier of contemporary European literature.  Among these are The Long Voyage, (an account of his time in Buchenwald) The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez  (an account of his fall out with Stalinism), and his chillingly beautiful Literature or Life? from 1994. 

What follows is an article written by Francesc Marc Álvaro, a columnist for La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s leading paper, which seeks to briefly explain the enormous importance of Semprun and his work. It is followed by remarks he made to reporter last year, a few days before speaking to his fellow ex-prisoners at Buchenwald on the occasion the 65th anniversary of their liberation from that horrible place, words that, in my view,  embody Semprun's  courageous and unflinchingly honest way of looking at the world in all its beauty and terror.

Learning From Semprun
by Francesc Marc Álvaro 

Upon the death of Jorge Semprun, a young person asked me why it is important to read him. First, in order to know that the world we now have (imperfect but much freer and more just that it was half a century ago) was not created by spontaneous generation, but rather is the fruit of the daring struggles of women and men like Semprun. Second, in order to humanize us and to help us avoid destructive sentiments like rancor and resentment. Third, to learn to think with freedom, without trying to look good or to play ball with the elites or, for that matter, the masses, but rather with full consciousness of one’s individual responsibility before the world.  And fourth, because Semprun’s prose transmits the truth of reality with extraordinary force, while at the same time placing us within the dark poetics of power, something that is quite useful. 

If I had to whittle down my response even more, I would say that the most substantial lesson of this great European thinker is to make us transcend schematic representations of the world. Semprun who was in his role as a man of action anti-fascist, anti-stalinist, anti-francoist, was in his books someone who never shrank before the barricades, always seeking complexity because he knew that moral commitment becomes impoverished when it is rooted in more or less calcified inertias. Having clear positions is not opposed to seeking an understanding that goes beyond automatic responses. 

We should take note of this, for in Catalonia and in the Spains, we are prisoners of two attitudes that feed off each other: political correctness and political incorrectness. Politically correct thought and politically incorrect thought are largely empty categories that kill debate and impel us to confuse the origin of things, disguising as ideas that which is, more often than not, nothing more than propaganda or the superficial buzz of the moment. There is nothing sadder than to see how dogmatists of different stripes try to dominate each other by raising the banner of either political correctness or political incorrectness.  I am tired of politically correct arguments that elude reality and politically incorrect arguments that seek to stuff reality into a very small box. Equally annoying are the everyday racist who presents his intolerance as an act of needed political incorrectness and the everyday progressive who thinks his location within the parameters of correct thought   exempts him from providing explanations. 

To look at the world as if everything should be said anew every day. To seek the comprehension of he who truly seeks to understand. To have respect for those who have looked death in the face and understand the privilege of being alive. Semprun had an intelligence that that did not allow itself to become disfigured by hate or vengeance. Not all can say this. And therein lies the key to the exquisite moral elegance he exhibited before his own life and the most destructive tragedy of the 20th century. Be, as Camus wished to be, distinct from the enemy. Please dear Ministers and Secretaries of Education, make our young read the books of Semprun.  Doing so will have a greater value than any and all the civics manuals you could give them.

Semprun's  remarks to reporter a few days before he gave his speech At Buchenwald in April of 2010 

"Well, for the last time this April 11th, neither resigned to die nor anxious about death, but rather furious, extremely irritated by the idea that soon I will not be here in the midst of the beauty of the world or, on the contrary, its grey insipidness--which in this particular case are the same thing--, for the last time, I will say what I have to say"

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Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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