Whenever something terrible happens – the Paris attacks, a school shooting, or whatever – people invariably express their shock and surprise, and I always feel slightly bewildered by this kind of reaction, because, although I could not possibly have foreseen these specific events, I am nevertheless profoundly not shocked nor surprised [although I am, of course, deeply saddened by them]. Human history, and my own experiences to a lesser extent, has taught me that we are capable of, that we actively and regularly engage in, every kind of baseness, brutality or infamy. In a way, I feel as though, at some unspecified point in my life, I have lost something precious, some necessary faith or belief in the inherent goodness of our species, because that is what it comes down to, my anguished shrug of the shoulders: I simply don’t believe that we are, or more specifically that we will consistently prove ourselves to be, better than this.
“She’s trying to make me believe that all suffering is the same, that all the dead weigh the same. As counterbalance for the weight of my dead friends, for all their ashes, she’s offering the weight of her own suffering. But the dead don’t all weigh the same, of course.”
Jorge Semprun was a Spanish writer and politician, who spent most of his life in France. He lived through WW2, becoming a member of the French resistance, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He wrote more than one book about his experiences, the most well-known of which is Le grand voyage [The Long Voyage, in English]. I have read many novels about the Holocaust, and of course each of them are different, and certainly each of them has moved me, but this is the first time that I have encountered a narrative voice that truly spoke to me. Now, obviously that isn’t necessary, it is not important to be able to find oneself in this kind of book, but when it does happen I want to acknowledge it, especially as it – the voice – is one of the most striking things about Semprun’s work. It is a voice characterised by a lack of disbelief, it is always logical or rational, tough but understanding. ‘I never imagined such a thing was possible’, says the guy from Semur. ‘Anything is possible’, the narrator replies.
Yes, anything is possible. Death camps. Incinerators. Lampshades made out of human skin. All possible. All, and more. Semprun’s narrator is not shocked, not by what is happening to him, nor by what happens to other people. How can you be shocked if you refuse to close your eyes? And that is what I got from The Long Voyage, a sense that here is an author who felt it important not to shy away from the truth. For example, the thing that the guy from Semur ‘never imagined’ was possible was that a man could be in a prison or camp and not share his provisions. The narrator explains that this isn’t, by any means, the most gratuitously selfish behaviour he has witnessed. Men will, he says, steal from someone their last piece of black bread, thereby choosing their own life, their own continued existence, over the life of someone else, who is, by virtue of that theft, being condemned to death.
[Jewish prisoners being deported to concentration camps]
Having said all that, the camps are not the true focus of the story. The Long Voyage begins with the ‘cramming of the bodies’ into a boxcar, and with a ‘throbbing pain in the right knee.’ There are 120 men and women on a train bound for Weimar, bound for extermination. In Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate there is a passage in which a bunch of people are loaded onto trucks and driven to a concentration camp and straight into the showers. It is written with great sensitivity and empathy. Yet, while Semprun puts the reader in a similar situation, which is to say that he forces you to ride along with his characters, his approach is different. Indeed, the train sections of The Long Voyage have much in common with the work of Samuel Beckett, especially How It Is and The Unnameable.
In How it Is, for example, the narrator is lying in the mud murmuring to himself, and attempting to crawl along the ground. He is constrained, and haunted by voices. In Semprun’s novel, the narrator is trapped in a dark boxcar, squashed up against a large number of people who he cannot see but can, of course, hear. And what he frequently hears are screams and murmurs, complaints and threats. It is a nightmarish and absurd situation. To Semprun’s credit, he acknowledges the absurdity, he plays upon it, such that the book is, miraculously, at times [intentionally] very funny. ‘Breathing is the main thing’, the guy from Semur says, as he clears a path to the small window, which is covered in barbed wire. Ha. Well, of course. Breathing is vital, if you want to live. And these people, who are hurtling towards their death, would like to live, at least a little bit longer, thanks very much.
“Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use.”
However, The Long Voyage is not all grim humour, there are beautiful moments too. While on the train the narrator spends some of his time looking out of the window, and at one stage he passes through the Moselle Valley. At this precise moment, he says, the world was reborn within him. What he means by this is that in the boxcar he has been cut off from the world, literally and spiritually. It is only when he passes through the Moselle Valley, when he recognises it, that he reconnects with the world, with what is outside, with a real place. The word ‘real’ is important here, because the situation in the boxcar is, of course, unreal. Indeed, the nature of reality, or unreality, plays a major role in the text.
In the boxcar, or in a death camp, one’s understanding of, or relationship with, reality changes. In other words, the unreal becomes real. You become accustomed to the bizarre, the grotesque, the appalling, such that a sudden revealing of the existence of, or a confrontation with, the normal is a kind of spiritual shock. On this, there is a wonderful scene in the book when the narrator leaves the camp and comes upon a group of women. Not women with shaved heads, starved to death, beaten and gassed, but women, real women, with stockings and lips and thigh-hugging skirts. And these creatures seem unreal to him, in the same way that the camp corpses, that he shows them, do to the women. I found this so engaging, for I had thought about our ability to adapt to horrendous circumstances, and our ability to normalise the not-normal, but I had never considered that it might work the other way around.
As always with these reviews, there is more that I want to discuss, but I fear writing too much and alienating the few people with the necessary patience to read my work. So I won’t talk about freedom, about how freedom is what people in prison have in common with each other. No, I will finish with something about memory. Structurally, The Long Voyage is essentially a kind of Proustian Arabian Nights, if you will allow me this ridiculous phrase, where, instead of stories-within-stories, we encounter memories-within-memories, memories, like bodies in a boxcar, stacked on top of each other. Yet instead of a madeleine, it is a taste of black bread, years after release, that ‘brought back, with shocking suddenness, the marvellous moments when we used to eat our rations of bread, when, with Indian-like stealth, we used to stretch it out, so that the tiny squares of wet, sandy bread which we cut out of our daily ration would last as long as possible.’