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Jorge Semprún : “My life has been determined by the history of Europe”

In his latest book, “Une tombe au creux des nuages” (A tomb cradled by the clouds), the writer Jorge Semprún looks back on the main events of the 20th century in Europe. In light of his own experience, the author puts into perspective the current issues around European integration. These include democratisation and cultural diversity, the driving role of Germany in the EU, the increase in distinctive identities, but also Jewish thought in European culture and the future of the democratic left-wing parties. A look back at the European histories of Jorge Semprún.

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“A European writer”

Born in 1923 in Madrid, Jorge Semprún Maura comes from an upper-middle class Spanish family. When civil war broke out, he fled Spain for the Netherlands and then France where he joined the communist resistance. As he was a member of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), Jorge Semprún was arrested and then deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943. He was liberated in April 1945. Having earlier coordinated communist resistance to the Franco regime, Jorge Semprún was expelled from the PCE in 1964 and so devoted himself to writing. Published in 1963, The Long Voyage is about his experience of the concentration camp and it was published to great acclaim. In 1988, Jorge Semprún joined Felipe Gonzalez’s socialist government as Minister for Culture, a position he held for three years. He has been a member of the Académie Goncourt (French literary organisation) since 1996.

When asked if he embraces his status as a European intellectual, Jorge Semprún is modest, “Intellectual ? I don’t know about that but, a writer, certainly!” Jorge Semprún has now written about thirty books, many of them about Europe. He has also written screenplays for films by Alain Resnais and Costa-Gavras, among others. His status, however, came at a price. Deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943 for his communist activism, it was almost 20 years later that Jorge Semprún published his first autobiographical novel, The Long Voyage. “Writing always reminds me of my experience at the camp,” he tells us.

Since then, Jorge Semprún has come a long way. “Une tombe au creux des nuages” (A tomb cradled by the clouds - Essays on the Europe of yesterday and today) pursues the ideas expressed in his previous essays and novels often taken from his own experience of the camps, the Spanish Civil War and his membership of the Communist Party. Coming from a Republican Catholic family that was supportive of the Popular Front, Jorge Semprún discovered communism, particularly during his student years. He then spent his time “trying to be communist” until after the war when he spent his time “trying to destroy the illusion of communism within himself” . He later spent time “discovering Europe as a possibility for multinational and supranational democracies” as the European project then became. His was a personal journey deeply embedded in 20th century Europe.

Soon after Spain’s entry into the European Community, Jorge Semprún devoted himself again to politics namely as Minister for Culture in Felipe Gonzalez’s socialist government (from 1988 to 1991). This activity proved itself incompatible with the work of a writer although it could reasonably be considered a kind of “therapy” against the “failure of writing” with which, as a memory of the past, he was obsessed.

Germany, the driving force behind European democratic reason

Regarding Europe itself, Jorge Semprún declares himself “critical but optimistic” in light of the Spanish experience. When Spain extricated itself from the long period of Franco’s dictatorship, it needed Europe and, even today, it remains particularly pro-European country that is grateful for European support.

While he is Spanish, Jorge Semprún also feels deeply French. “I effectively have two homelands,” the author states, which has its advantages. For example, he says, “when France plays Spain in a football match, I always win!” Far from feeling stateless, Jorge Semprún considers himself steeped in statehood ! This comes, in particular, from the feeling of being European.

However, the writer is most avidly interested in Germany. This country which has come through the Nazi regime and (a part of its territory) through the Soviet dictatorship today represents, according to the writer, one of the best examples of European democracy. In this respect (but also because Germany went through a long grieving process), its contribution to European construction has been enormous as post-war Europe was built out of a Nazi and fascist past but also against the backdrop of the Soviet dictatorship.

Ironically, today’s significant euroscepticism comes from England - the only European democracy to have resisted occupation during the Second World War.

Semprún’s new book is a collection of several lectures he gave in Germany between 1986 and 2005 dealing with his memory of the concentration camps, as well as European democracy, the communist experience in Central and Western Europe, the future of the European left and even the influence of Jewish thought in the 20th century.

This series of essays is as much about Europe’s past because “today’s Europe is dependent on what was achieved, or not achieved, in the past” but it also demonstrates what, in Jorge Semprún’s opinion, best defines European identity - its diversity.

To find out more :

Jorge Semprún : Une tombe au creux des nuages - Editions Climats

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