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A Tribute to Jorge Semprun

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The first time I saw Jorge Semprun was in 1977, with his wife Colette and his friend Yves Montand, in a restaurant he was fond of in the rue du Dragon.

Already, he had this handsome head of white hair that made him look like Don Diego de Bivar, the father of El Cid.

He had the eyes of a warrior, but his gaze became veiled and a bit haunted when he spoke of "his" dead -- glorious elders of the Spanish Civil War, companions of the maquis and the Resistance, comrades who had gone up in smoke at Buchenwald.

And then this melodious voice that, in the same phrase, could suddenly change register, lower in tone as though he were telling you a terrible secret when he recalled this or that tortuous episode become, with time, almost incomprehensible, of the life of Federico Sanchez, his double in the struggle against Franquism, and then climb towards the shrill, almost strident, when he became impassioned about the debates of the present.

As I perceived him then, he was, first of all, the man of this fascinating clandestine existence, one he had left behind scarcely fifteen years before.

He was the man of a Spanish Civil War he was, obviously, too young to have taken part in but, like Hemingway, never ceased to call "nuestra guerra", our war.

He was the incarnation of this other war, one that went on even longer, the war against fascism he actually fought, as an armed combatant, initially in the maquis of Burgundy and then, in April 1945, at Buchenwald, in the mouth of the same devil.

He was heroic and humble.

Like all true heroes, he had this way of speaking of himself and of his heroic deeds without spelling things out.

But his Autobiography of Federico Sanchez had just been published, and, whether he wished to be or not, he was one of the last members of this race of combatant writers one might have feared had become extinct with Malraux -- but no, there he was, Jorge Semprun, with his mysterious panache.

In time, I read his works.

To begin with, I discovered his anti-fascism knew no limits, so he was no longer afraid to recognize the muzzle of the Beast beneath its human faces -- such as that of "communist emancipation", in which he believed for a long time, too long a time, until his break with Stalinism, and then with the Party, in the early 60s.

And I discovered that he was, also and especially, a magnificent writer, one of the most powerful and imaginative on the modern scene.

I discovered the stubborn raconteur whose work is the interminable re-write, the palimpsest, of a few scenes from a past that refuses to remain in the past.

I discovered this art that is his and his alone, to return tirelessly to the same stations of a life whose magic spells he interminably examines, in order to break the sortilege.

I loved this art of return, of the loop, the spiral, that reminds one equally of the practice of series in contemporary painting or of the taste for questioning in a Talmud with which, to my knowledge, he was scarcely familiar.

I loved this beautiful idea of the writer, this post-Proustian idea that memory feeds upon itself and is increased by what it spits out or what one gleans from it. I loved, I still love, the idea that books do not drain the memory but arouse it; I loved that he thought, and proved, that digging into one's memories does not exhaust them, rather it fertilizes them. I loved his rejection of this popular assumption of a massive, passive memory, waiting in limbo for one to come along and inventory its stock so it can be stored, once and for all, in the false light of a reliquary. And I loved that he said, for example, that there were fewer images of the camps in his mind before he wrote The Long Voyage and What a Beautiful Sunday than afterwards.

I loved, and it's too bad if it's less known, the philosopher that he was as well.

I loved that he was one of the last of the living (must one say survivor?) with whom one could seriously discuss a German philosophy (the Husserl of 1935, but not only that) whose worth he never thought should be disavowed simply because it was expressed in the language of the future executioners.

And I loved, of course, the European. Oh, not all his views on Europe! Not his "theses"! But the multiple, layered identity that was his, at the crossroads of his destinies and his chosen countries, and, especially, this game of lexicons, this mix-up of different breaths and turns of phrases, this dazzling blaze of Castillian that disturbed the perfect architecture of his French, these vague influences of German that made his Spanish stand out in relief, these crossing paths between words, these free and oblique associations -- in short, this other memory that was the memory of his word and that made of him a prodigious tower of Babel, murmuring the several languages of Europe. This was a Europe all his own, he, the spirit of Europe incarnate, someone who had no need to speak of Europe for Europe to speak in him. And it is another reason, in my eyes, to cherish him as one should cherish all the rare living treasures of the European nation.

Adieu, Jorge Semprun. Salut, bright clarity.