Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

The Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place, the entrance to the underworld, where according to Virgil ‘no winged creatures could ever wing their way’. Virgil sees no birds until he returns above ground, nor does Molloy on his own metaphorical journey to the underworld saying ‘I had not heard a bird for a long time. How was it I had not heard any in the forest? Nor seen any.’

The conspicuous absence of birds is one of Jorge Sepmrún’s recurring memories of his journey through death in Buchenwald, written about in his staggeringly moving and insightful Literature or Life. ‘No birds left. They say the smoke from the crematory drove them away. Never any birds in this forest . . .’ With these words Semprún greets four soldiers about to enter Buchenwald on the first morning of its liberation.

David Morris, writing on the Freudian uncanny, writes that it [unheimlich] ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’. Semprún for many years is unable to write directly of his experience, ‘I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.’

Semprún chooses a ‘long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia’ despite the dangers of suppression, until the suicide of Primo Levi unlocks a need to represent his journey into, and out the other side of death. These memoirs ask the question, how to write of these unimaginable terrors in a way people can hear, can understand? Semprún shows that there needn’t be a disjunction between literature and life, that it is possible to write poetically about barbaric events. Perhaps he demonstrates quite the opposite, that literature (poetry) is precisely the response needed for terrors like Buchenwald.

4 thoughts on “Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

  1. I pressed the “like” button but wish it said “admire” instead. This is a very elegant introduction to a book I’m going to look for. Ironic, isn’t it, that Buchenwald means Beechwood? Those beautiful trees, groves of them in Central Europe, full of birds…

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