Exile and Return: The Many Madrids of Jorge Semprún


Soledad Fox

Williams college


 Du Madrid de mon enfance, tout, il me reste tout!

 Jorge Semprún in Gérard de Cortanze, Le Madrid de Jorge Semprún

 ¿…cómo pretendes evitar que tu memoria o tu imaginación novelesca no desemboquen tan a menudo en la memoria histórica, si ambas están, en lo que se refiere al menos a este siglo XX, totalmente entrecruzadas, entreveradas?

Jorge Semprún, Veinte años y un día 253


When Jorge Semprún’s Republican family fled to France during the Spanish Civil War, the author was an adolescent. He applied himself to learning the language of his adopted country not only well enough to blend in and not give himself away as a foreigner, but also to become one of France’s most acclaimed writers. During Franco’s lifetime, it made sense to write in any language other than Spanish to get around the regime’s censors, but since the end of the dictatorship until the present Semprún has continued to live in France; and to write mainly in French. He is so well known and admired in France that he has been adopted as a French writer—to the French public he is Georges Semprún.  Recently the Academie Francaise proposed that he become a member. However the directors of the Academie were surprised when Semprún informed them that he remained a Spanish citizen and had no desire to become French at this late date—even if would mean being inducted into their prestigious ranks. (Echevarría)

So, is Semprún’s oeuvre French or Spanish? If it is French, does that mean it is not part of Spanish literature, or even of Spanish literature of exile? Is his new novel Veinte años y un día  more Spanish by virtue of being written in his native language? These questions are only important because Semprún—despite his fame in France—remains fundamentally a writer in exile. The fact that he has written in French has excluded his work even from Spanish exile literature. His marginalization is not, like that of others, because he fell between the cracks and is unknown. On the contrary, he is very famous, but not as someone who writes about the situation of the Spanish Republican in exile. This is partly due to the fact that his most well-known and translated work is his first, Le grand voyage (1963), in which he describes his experience in the concentration camp Buchenwald, where he was sent after being arrested by the Gestapo as a member of the French Resistance. If any subject can eclipse all others it is the holocaust, and Semprún has his deserved place in testimonial holocaust literature. Several important studies have examined him in this light.(1) Yet Semprún lived for two decades before the holocaust and has lived for roughly sixty years since he was liberated from the camp. Before joining the French Resistance, the most notable event in his life was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his family’s subsequent exile to France in 1936. After World War II, he joined the clandestine Spanish communist party and for years risked his life as an underground operative traveling back and forth to Franco Spain. He has also written more than a dozen books since Le grand voyage, some of which return to the subject of the holocaust while others focus on other periods of his life.

The vision of Semprún as “holocaust author” is very important, but it provides only a partial view of the author. For, in all his books—including Le grand voyage—there is an over-arching theme that has yet to be fully explored despite its pervasiveness: Semprún’s essential identity as a Spanish Republican exile from Francoist Spain. It is this situation that his work returns to again and again, and that has defined his life from 1936 to the present. His life and writing must necessarily be understood in light of this fundamental displacement and the predominance that Spain took on --both real and remembered-- in his life and his writing. The Civil War and exile are not just historical facts or background to his later writing, but are the core of his political engagement, his work, and perhaps most fundamentally, his survival. If Semprún’s work is viewed in terms of its primary themes of exile and memory, the vast common ground he shares with other exiled writers becomes apparent. His writing is permeated by a terrible sense of having been uprooted and by the consequent search for roots. The displacement follows him everywhere, and the search takes him always back to the beginning: to his childhood in Madrid.

In Adieu, vive clarté… Semprún writes of the humiliation of being a Spanish Republican refugee in France during the Spanish Civil War. He is upset by events as prosaic as seeing a group of Spanish tourists, or trying to buy a croissant. It is precisely the mundanity of these scenes that highlight the all-pervasive condition of exile. For the refugee is not afforded the luxury of banality--what is mundane for others is tragic for him. One of the most striking memories he has of the early period of exile takes place in Paris’s Gare de Austerlitz. He sees a group arriving by train and recognizes immediately, even before he hears their voices, from their clothes, coloring, and gestures that they are Spaniards. What could be worse for a Spanish refugee in France than to have to see a group of Spanish tourists from Francoist Spain in Paris—the living proof that Spain still existed-- for a short holiday with their elegant clothes and expensive leather luggage? Their appearance before him, the mere fact that Spaniards are able to live in Spain and to come and go at their leisure is a slap in the face:

Ainsi. L’Espagne existait encore?…Un innocent voyage de vacances estivales? Ainsi, sans nous, sans moi, malgré le douleur de notre exil, la perte de nos racines, l’Espagne n’était pas morte? Elle n’était pas devenue fantomatique, irréelle?… J’ai regardé passer ces Espagnols, bavards et visiblement heureux—bien portants, bien habillés, bien dans leur peau--, avec un effroi étrange. Comme si leur aisance vitale m’enfonçait dans la solitude bourbeuse d’une agonie. D’une certaine façon de ne plus être au  monde, en tout cas. La surprise a été si forte que je n’ai pas eu la présence d’esprit de les insulter ni même de les hair (154-155)


But if the sight of these Spaniards is a confrontation with a Spain that is no longer his, his first experiences in France make it clear that it will be an uphill battle to become something else, to be accepted by another group. As a young exile, Semprún spoke French haltingly and with a strong Spanish accent. The experience of linguistic exile made him an easy target and transformed even a simple shop transaction into an experience of alienation and embarrassment. This is illustrated by his unsuccessful attempt to buy a croissant from a bakery in Paris. After he asks repeatedly for the croissant, the baker still feigns incomprehension and ignores his request; finally complains loudly to the other customers about the nuisance of foreigners—especially Spanish “Reds”—who had invaded France and couldn’t even speak French properly. 

The irony of Semprún’s later celebrity status in France is apparent when we think of the hungry boy who couldn’t buy a croissant in a Parisian bakery without being attacked for his nationality, his political identity, and his language. He realized that if he didn’t speak like others he would be excluded from the community by their language. He later cites this encounter with the xenophobic baker of the boulevard Saint-Michel as one of the reasons he perfected his French, but he had other motives for doing so. Through French literature, he fell in love with the language and was seduced by the idea of writing in French.  Though Semprún is candid about his passion for the French language, he reiterates the fact that French never replaces his first language. Spanish both belongs to him and possesses him:

La langue espagnole ne cessa pas pour autant d’être mienne; de m’appartenir: De sort que je ne cessais jamais de…lui appartenir. Je ne cesserais pas de m’exprimer avec ses mots, sa sonorité, sa flamboyance, l’essentiel de moi-même, à loccasion. En somme, du point de vue de la langue, je ne devins pas français mais bilingue. Ce qui est tout autre chose, de bien plus complexe, on peut l’imaginer. (135)


Never once, however, does Semprún want to become a French national. In The Long Voyage, as he is being returned to France after Buchenwald in 1945 with a group of French citizens, the issue of nationality arises and separates him from the other resistance fighters. They have survived the camp, and are traveling to France to be repatriated. The French prisoners are excited, crossing into France to see what to them are French trees. For Semprún, the trees have no nationality and the crossing of the border into France only brings back memories of crossing the French border into exile with his family several years earlier:

I’m lying in the truck, looking up at the trees. It was at Bayonne, on the docks next to the main square of Bayonne, that I learned I was a Spanish Red. The next day I got my second surprise, when we read in a newspaper that there were Reds and Nationalists. Why they were Nationalists when they fought the war using Moroccan troops, the Foreign Legion, German planes, and the Littorio divisions, was more than I could fathom. That was one of the initial mysteries of the French language I had to decipher. But at Bayonne, on the docks of Bayonne, I became a Spanish Red. There were big beds of flowers, and lots of summer vacationers behind the gendarmes who had come to see the Spanish Reds disembark. We were vaccinated, and they let us disembark. The summer vacationers looked at the Spanish Reds and we looked at the shop windows of the bakeries. We looked at the white bread, the golden croissants, all these things from out of the past. We were like fish out of water in this world from out of the past. Since then I’ve never stopped being a Spanish Red. It’s a way of life that was valid everywhere. Thus, in the camp I was a Rotspanier. I looked at the trees and I was happy to be a Spanish Red. (104)


Semprún’s indifference to the nationality of the branches and leaves baffled his companions—who had forgotten that he was foreign because his French at this point was absolutely fluent. He had to explain: “I’m not home. I’m not French.” (100) Ironically, we soon learn that this declaration is more than his personal feeling on the subject. It is a fact, and upon arrival at the repatriation camp where all the liberated prisoners are given a physical examination, and the repatriation “bonus” (some money and a supply of cigarettes) the official handling of the paperwork says that she cannot give him the repatriation bonus because despite fighting for France and surviving Buchenwald, he is not a French citizen and only French citizens are entitled to the thousand franc note and the cigarettes. His French companions protest, outraged that someone who fought “for France” and who speaks fluent French could be formally excluded. But Semprún does not protest against this absurd bureaucratic injustice and rejection, for he prefers to preserve his identity a Spanish Red. At this time, this identity was all he had left of the past.

Many Spanish Republicans in exile struggled with the split between the new public identities they were forced to assume to survive and their private identities linked to their past and home. For Semprún, the early age of his exile and his apparent assimilation to his adopted French life seem to set him apart from other exiled Spanish writers of the generation of 1939. For writers who had established their careers in pre-Civil War Spain, exile had specific repercussions, and their work reflects the transforming and often tragic effect of exile. Semprún’s career as a writer, in contrast, begins after the Civil War, yet as his work reveals he has as many points of contact with Spanish exiled writers as he does with other twentieth century French authors, or even other European authors –for example Primo Levi, with whom he is often linked because of their writings on the Holocaust. Furthermore, though Semprún quickly perfected his French in order to blend in successfully, his goal was not, paradoxically to lose his foreignness through assimilation but rather to preserve it:

I don’t feel like explaining… why I talk exactly as they do…without any accent, that is, with a real French accent. This is the surest way of preserving my status as a foreigner, which I cherish above all. If I had an accent, my “foreignness” would be constantly apparent. It would become something banal, exteriorized. Personally, I would get used to the banality of being taken for a foreigner. Similarly, being a foreigner would then no longer be any problem, it would no longer have any meaning. That’s why I don’t have any accent, why, from the language point of view, I eliminated any possibility of being taken for a foreigner. In a certain sense, being a foreigner has become an internal virtue. (100)


Biographically, of course, Semprún is not an “exiled Republican writer”, since he was first an exile who only later grew up to become a writer. Born in 1923, he was too young to have been a writer at the outbreak of the Civil War. However, his literature is nevertheless that of a Republican exile. His alienation from Spain, his memory, writing, and political engagement are themes shared with other exiled Republicans authors. If there is a Spanish literary canon of exiled writers, perhaps it is primarily in this group that his work would be most at home. The fact that he became a French language writer is precisely an artifact of exile—his family could well have ended up in Mexico or Latin America like so many other Republicans. In Adieu, vive clarté… we learn that his father, José María Semprún Gurrea, considered this option. In 1939 he wrote to José Bergamín (who had gone to Mexico) that he was willing to go to “las Américas” if he couldn’t find a way to make a living in France, but in the end he lacked the strength to relocate. His only wish, as he wrote to Bergamín, was to shut himself up somewhere fitting to his exiled state that he describes as that of an “ambulatory corpse”. Semprún lived not only the experience of his own exile from Spain, but he also grew up in the shadow of his father’s sadness.

The fate of Semprún’s father also permeates the Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez. Even though all he has left of his father is one book, it is an object that appears periodically and poignantly in his work:

Pero acabas de recordar un objeto que te queda de esa época, no es una fotografía desde luego, ni una tarjeta postal, mi una carta…es un libro…el único libro que te queda de tu padre y que tienes en tu biblioteca…y lo abres y en la primera página en blanco su firma rubricada: José Ma. De Semprún y Gurrea, junio 1932, y no puedes evitar una sonrisa…y es que el libro de tu padre que te queda como único testimonio material de aquella época, como única prueba material de que no has soñado los acontecimientos y las ímagenes de aquella época es…Karl Marx: DAS KAPITAL, y no deja de tener gracia, habrá que confesarlo, que lo único que hayas heredado de tu padre, muerto en el exilio… sea un ejemplar del Capital de Marx. (290)


This particular book, as the sole material trace of his father’s past and of his own past, becomes the symbol of the lost Republic, and of a life ended in exile. As a symbol that brings together Marx, his father, and his childhood in Madrid, this book reflects his identity as a rouge espagnol.

It is as a rojo that he eventually comes back to Spain—and he literally has to sneak back into—in 1953 as a communist operative. There is no doubt that Semprún was committed to fighting Fascism in World War II, and to undermining Franco’s regime in the fifties and that his motivations were broadly political. Yet his clandestine work in Spain also fulfilled the intense personal need to return to the past, to Madrid, to see if there was anything left of the city and the life he remembered. By 1953 he needs to return to Spain, to see Madrid for himself.

Writing about the themes of exile and memory in the post-Civil War poetry of Luis Cernuda, Bernard Scot points out that in the poet’s work after 1938 there is a marked emergence of historical referentiality and of an autobiographical voice (15). The effect of el destierro, as Sicot sees it in Cernuda, appears in the form of personal memory in the first person. Semprún’s work is generally much more “memoir” than fiction and the prevalence of the autobiographical in his writing is deeply linked to his family’s past in Spain—a past that was suddenly and violently terminated by the Civil War. Memory for the exiled writer is not merely nostalgia in the sense of longing, but nostalgia in the sense of the Greek root nostos: a return. This return through memory for the exiled subject is a means of survival and a way through which an identity that has been stolen by the circumstances of exile is—to a certain degree—recovered. This recovery is not ideal, but it is practical in the most vital and basic sense as it alone protects Semprún from succumbing to complete despair. The choice becomes reduced to two options: memory or death, “I” or non-existence.

Throughout Semprún’s writing there is a deep and recurring effort to reconnect to his childhood—The repetition of certain descriptions of his family, house and neighborhood run through works that are otherwise heterogeneous and that deal with very different subjects.  From L’autobiographie de Federico Sanchez (1978), La montagne blanche (1986),) Federico Sanchez vous salue bien (1993), Adieu vive clarté (1998) to the new Spanish language Veinte años y un día (2003) identity is crystallized for Semprún in memories of his childhood in Madrid.

Madrid itself can be placed at the center of an understanding of Semprún. The city’s centrality in his life was clearly galvanized by his experiences outside of Spain. Neither the regime nor exile can wrest from memory—nor from the physical landscape of the city—the streets, buildings, park, and even tiny shops that in their sum total will remain during close to eighty years Semprún’s home of the imagination. The fixedness of the city in his work emphasizes the peculiar effect of Franco’s dictatorship on the author’s identity and memory. While Semprún is absolutely opposed to Franco, Spain is so stagnant under the regime that it has a paradoxical benefit: when Semprún visits Madrid (on his trips as a clandestine communist agent in the 1950s) the Madrid of his childhood is strangely preserved and gives the author the opportunity to reconnect with his past. From specific buildings to the typical cooking of Madrid (i.e. cocido madrileño) and the paintings of the Museo del Prado, Madrid physically preserves a connection to the past for Semprún. This connection is revitalizing as it simultaneously resurrects Semprún from the dead and returns him from exile, achieving what he calls a desentierro del destierro. 

The memories of his childhood in Madrid and of his family are a unifying theme in his work to such a degree that one is tempted to look at many of his books as if they were sections of an orange—each separately delineated yet similar and all part of a larger whole. In contrast to, for example, the autobiographical works of republican exiles María Teresa León (Memoria de la melancolía) or Semprún’s own cousin Constancia de la Mora (In Place of Splendor) which both start out in Madrid with memories of childhood but then progress chronologically to descriptions of their adult lives, Semprún’s childhood resurfaces continually disrupting the progress of his narration.

Semprún has just published his first novel in Spanish, Veinte años y un día. In it, Semprún describes his first return to Madrid from his exile in France. An image as seemingly insignificant as a haberdasher on Calle Serrano that specializes in stockings and is called “La Gloria de las Medias” has made frequent appearances in Semprún’s work and appears twice in Veinte años y un día. In this semi-veiled autobiographical work—it is eventually revealed that the Narrator (with a capital “N”) is Federico Sánchez, the name that Semprún readers will recognize as that of his alter ego—the narrator is a Spaniard who left Madrid during the Civil War. He has lived in France and has returned to Madrid for the first time since the war. It is 1953 and he is in Madrid clandestinely to meet with other communist operatives. Politics aside, the trip is momentous for he is back in the city of his childhood for the first time in fifteen years:

Anochecía, fue andando a largas zancadas hasta el barrio de Salamanca, fue recorriendo las calles de la infancia, todo era igual, todo…todo era idéntico a las imágenes de su memoria, y sin embargo fue adueñándose de su espíritu un incomprensible sentimiento de extrañeza, de confuso desasosiego: nunca se había sentido tan extranjero como aquella noche, al regresar al conocido paisaje de la infancia. Desorientado, desanimado, fue recorriendo las calles del barrio, buscando un punto de referencia, de permanencia, de arraigo, de continuidad tranquilizadora. Lo encontró finalmente por azar. Estaba en Serrano, por donde había circulado en tiempos el tranvía número 11….estaba allí, desconcertado, angustiado por la extrañeza radical de lo más antiguo, originario, de su propia memoria, cuando vio de pronto, en la acera de enfrente, el escaparate iluminado de una mercería, La Gloria de las Medias…¡La Gloria de las Medias! Súbitamente, al aparecer aquel rótulo de antaño, aquel nombre enternecedor, grandilocuente, pareció que todo el torbellino de sentimientos, de angustias, de preguntas, volvía a serenarse, que la riada de una memoria desbordada volvía a su cauce, se amansaba en el remanso de la evidencia. La Gloria de las Medias era el símbolo, a la vez insignificante, doméstico, pero patético, de un transcurrir del tiempo denso y homogéneo: desde la infancia hasta el día de hoy, a pesar de tanta mudanza, tanta muerte, tanto éxodo y exilio, un hilo rojo de ídentica sangre viva recorría los vericuetos de su vida.(249)


The sense of recognition and surprise the Narrator experiences after stumbling upon “La Gloria de las Medias” can only be understood from the perspective of an exile. This mundane, frivolously named shop remembered from childhood represents lost innocence, the horrors of war, but also—in its unconscious endurance and sameness—a vital connection to the past and a continuity in a life pervaded by rupture and tragedy.

“La Gloria de las Medias” is just one of the landmark’s of Semprún’s Madrid. His city is one  of memory and its  geographic scope is largely limited to his experience of the city of a child. His family’s house was 12, calle Alfonso XI. The house on Calle Alfonso XI is the primary location for recollection in Semprún’s work. In Adieu, vive clarté… he returns to the “…ville de mon enfance, rue Alfonse XI…”; in L’ecriture ou la vie he describes the anguish he feels “…dès que je suis arrivé rue Alfonso XI…”; and in most of his books the address appears many times over. In L’Algarabie, a novel which tells of the last day in the life of a Republican emigré exiled in Paris, the memories of childhood in Madrid take on an urgency as the Spanish narrator feels the futility of trying to communicate his past to a foreign, younger woman, called Elizabeth. The refrain of the narrator’s rambling monologue shows his frustration and despair, for he can describe the past ad infinitum but there is a fundamental chasm because, as he tells her again and again, she does not know Spain: “Tu ne connais pas l’Espagne”. What is so important to the narrator is, he feels, ineffable to the non-Spaniard and trying to convey the personal significance of Madrid to a foreigner only highlights his feeling of alienation. The intense fragmentation of the narrator’s speech is further highlighted by the lack of punctuation in the text:

Tu voulais Elizabeth la description la plus précise possible de cet appartement de Madrid…Je me souviens de ce lieu clos éclairé par les deux fenêtres au midi sur la rue Alfonso XI…Je pense à te parler ainsi Elizabeth Sur ton injonction d’avoir à te donner une description détaillé de cet appartement de Madrid Je pense qu’il constitue un lieu originaire Une scène primaire ou primordiale Peut-être même primitive Où se sont déroulées pratiquement toutes les années d’enfance dont je gard bonne mémoire…Le reste quoi qu’il en soit. Le reste avant ce long séjour rue Alfonso XI jusqu’à la guerre civil et l’exil…Le reste n’étant qu’une série incohérent d’images disloquées et rétives…Mais tu Tu ne connais pas Madrid (183-184)


In this excerpt, and more extensively in the pages long narrative it is taken from, the centrality of Madrid is explicit: the childhood home on Calle Alfonso XI is the place of origin (lieu originaire) and an image that is primary, primordial, and perhaps even primitive. It represents the coherent crux of an identity shattered by war and exile. The memory of Alfonso XI is a refuge from a life of dislocation. The landmarks in the neighborhood surrounding Alfonso XI –the Puerta de Alcalá, the Palace Hotel, the Ritz Hotel, the Parque del Retiro, the Jardín Botánico and the Museo del Prado—also have priviliged roles in Semprún’s memory. In particular, the Prado and certain paintings within it are revisited throughout Semprún’s work and have a key role in his exploration of the loss of childhood, exile, identity, and return. 

Semprún’s childhood was immersed in literature, art, and languages. He was also marked by an extremely close attachment to his mother Susana, an enthusiastic Republican who filled the house with political talk and activities. When the Republicans won the elections in 1931 she played “La Marseillaise” on the record player and hung Republican flags on all the balconies of the apartment. But the idyllic cocoon of his formative years would be shattered: first by the personal tragedy of his mother’s death in 1932 when he was nine—an absurd end brought about by an infected blister caused by a shoe. His mother—and her death—marked Semprún profoundly. She would remain throughout his life and work a symbol both of paradise—the benevolent ruler of the childhood empire-- and of paradise lost. Nearly forty years after her death, in his Autobiografía de Federico Sanchez Semprún includes the following idealized image of Susana and the world she had created for her children:

Allí estábamos todos, a la hora del refresco, junto a esa madre tan joven, y bellísima, escuchando sus preguntas a cerca de las mínimas aventuras     de la tarde, agachando la cabeza bajo su mano que acariciaba la frente de sus hijos….aquella madre tan joven que nos abandonó  poco después y que la muerte ha inmovilizado en su momento de plenitud, mientras que yo he seguido envejeciendo, hasta alcanzar la edad en que Susana… ya   podría ser hija mía, hija de mi tristísimo y solitario ensueño.(269)


A few years after his mother’s death, in 1936, what was left of childhood was radically terminated  because of the Civil War. After World War II, he returned to France where he became a key member of the underground Partido Comunista Español. Part of his work involved frequent clandestine trips to Spain, during which he often used the pseudonyms Federico Sánchez and Agustín Larrea, among many others.(2) Since the early 1960s he has been an active writer and screenwriter and in 1988 he was finally invited back to Spain officially to be the Minister of Culture with the socialist leadership of Felipe Gonzalez. Thus Semprún has spent long periods away from Madrid but has also returned in many guises. During each of these distinctly different periods spanning nearly sixty years Semprún’s relationship to Madrid is revisited  as both a physical city and a geography of his memories—memories that he will mine repeatedly in his novels in his quest to confront the otherwise irreconcilable present and past.

Recollection is crucial for Semprún because it represents all that is unique to him—a foundation for his identity. Furthermore, the recollection of the past in the present is the only way to achieve a continuity in the ruptured narrative of his life which he is constantly reconstructing. On the key role of memory for the writer in exile, Sicot says that “Gracias a la memoria van a encontrarse, en la obra, estas dos necesidades del exiliado: la de una íntima unidad del yo, por supuesto, pero también la de la búsqueda de una identidad, de una continuidad, ligadas a la pertenencia histórica.” (64)

In Federico Sanchez Vous Salue Bien, Semprún proposes a possible autobiographical approach:

    Je pourrais racconter ma vie…je pourrais essayer de le faire, néanmoins, en référence aux Ménines de Velázquez, en rodant autour de cette toile.     Non pas qu’il n’y ait également ailleurs à travers la vieille Europe, des oeuvres auxquelles s’accrochent, comme des lambeaux de rêve, des    
    episodes essentials de ma vie…Dans ce périple imaginaire, cependant, tout commence et tout se termine devant Les Ménines deVelázquez. Ma     vie est liée a cette toile fascinante, elle s’en écarte et y revient sans cesse, la trouvant toujours sur son chemin. Je me souviens du rôle que ce    
    tableau a joué dans ma vie.


To trace Semprún’s autobiography using Las Meninas we must start with his weekly Sunday visits to the Prado as a young boy, holding his father’s hand. Semprún was initially reluctant to spend his Sundays at the Prado—he would have preferred to be outside playing—but eventually he became intensely attached to his strolls through the museum’s empty halls (during this period the museum was often deserted) listening to his father. Gerard de Cortanze records in Le Madrid de Jorge Semprún how Semprún’s father, a diplomat and historian, used the paintings to explain Spanish history and politics—past and present-- to his son. They often stopped before the paintings of Goya, Velázquez , El Greco, and Titian, as well as those of the lesser known  Flemish painter Joachim Patinir. The latter’s El paso de la laguna Estigia would make a lifelong impression on Semprún and would become a central element in his own work. The Museo del Prado played a key role in opening the young Semprún’s eyes to art, history, politics, and also to women and sexuality. His discovery of the female figure in the paintings of the Prado was achieved despite his father’s best efforts to exclude any dangerous nudes from their tours. As he recalls in Adieu, vive clarté one of his father’s main objectives during these visits to the museum was to make sure his son’s eyes didn’t fall on any representations of female nudity. The only painting of a female he was allowed to admire was Murillo’s portrait of the Virgin. Semprún attributes his aversion to Murillo to this early paternal censorship, and recalls eventually trying to rebel against his father by playfully running off and hiding in none other than the forbidden Rubens gallery. But this proved disappointing as Rubens’ buxom female figures were not to his taste and shed no light on the essential mysteries of the flesh he sought to understand. Irritated and confused by his lack of response to Rubens’ women, he would finally console himself upon finding a female ideal in the luminous nudity of Cranach’s Eve.

In contrast to this childhood discovery of life through the paintings of the Prado, is the next period of Semprún’s visits to the museum. Nearly twenty years passed between the two periods. The man who in the 1950s returns to the galleries that the young boy roamed was not only older and a resident of France with a new name, but had also survived fighting with the French Resistance, a Nazi concentration camp, and was now operating clandestinely to overthrow the Franco government. Exile has left its imprint on Semprún: his Spanish is rusty and he doesn’t know how to express himself with colloquial ease in the most common situations—in addressing a taxi driver, or a waiter at a café. This linguistic alienation makes him feel as much of a stranger in Madrid-- his own city—as he had felt as an exile in Paris.  He describes another moment of his first clandestine voyage back to Madrid in the Autobiografía de Federico Sánchez. After checking into the hotel, the first thing he does is to run through Madrid to 12 calle Alfonso XI. Facing his childhood home, Semprún is torn by contradictory feelings: a familiarity that somehow only makes his exiled status more pronounced. This first traumatic confrontation with the past will be followed by many more trips to Madrid—to the past—and eventually he becomes convinced that Spain needs him, that he has a purpose, and a role to play. He begins to weave together the past and the present, even comparing his life as a clandestine operative in Madrid—the hiding, the waiting—to his childhood games in the Retiro.

Era como un juego de niños, en cierto modo, como aquellos que se desarrollaban en el Retiro, antaño—y en su parte más intricada y frondosa,     entre el Palacio de Cristal y el tramo del paseo de Coches que va de la plazoleta del Angel Caído a la Casa de Fieras—sigilosos, acaso brutales,     cuando se trataba de rescatar a algún prisionero o de asaltar a alguna fingida diligencia, como en las novelas de Zane Grey y las películas del   Oeste. (45-46)


The Prado will be as central to his clandestine period as it was to his childhood. In Federico Sánchez vous salue bien, he describes his return to the museum and the many hours he spent there:

Je me suis souvent immobilizé devant la toile de Velázquez, dès 1953, année de mon premier retour clandestine à Madrid. J’y ai consacré des    
heures de meditation contemplative.
Plusieurs circonstances ont concouru à cette predilection. Les souvenirs d’enfance, sans doute…Dans les    premiers temps, le Prado était un endroit idéal pour tuer le temps, y faire vivre les temps morts. Et dans le Prado, l’emplacement des Ménines était privilégié. (147)


In this period, the Prado was the perfect place for two main reasons: to kill time, and to relive dead times (i.e. his childhood). Furthermore, it was dangerous for Semprún to return—with his assumed identity—to his hotel between his clandestine meetings and the Prado thus became the perfect anonymous hideout. Las Meninas was the ideal spot to stand for hours on end, for not only does the painting bring back his own past, it is also a singularly engaging work of art. He could look at Las Meninas for hours. Most importantly, at this time Las Meninas was displayed alongside a vast mirror. This mirror was positioned to the right of the painting and allowed the viewer to reproduce the play of points of view that the painting proposes. But Semprún found a more practical and political use for it: he could see—while ostensibly looking at the painting-- in the reflection whether or not he had been followed by a guardia civil. Thus as a clandestine operative, for Semprún Las Meninas was dulcis et utilis: an important work of art, a connection to his past, and a political hideout with a built in lookout point.

Semprún’s experience closely parallels Spanish political history of the twentieth century. The key events in this history produced his exile, but also his official return with the Socialist government of Felipe González. The next encounter Semprún has Las Meninas was nearly thirty years later when he came back to Madrid as Ministro de Cultura under the socialist government of Felipe González. The man who had stood fearfully in front of Las Meninas, anonymous and constantly checking for followers had become a political figure using his own name in his own country for the first time since 1936. He could live in Madrid openly for the first time since childhood, and not be called Georges Semprún as he was in France, nor Federico Sánchez or any other pseudonym. He became Jorge Semprún again. Suddenly he was free to roam the Prado galleries of his childhood at will, he had the power to visit the museum even when it is closed to the public, and to revisit the paintings he first saw with his father accompanied by official visitors such as the Queen of England. Strangely, the Prado became as much a part of his professional public present as it had always been of his private past.

Visites officielles ou privées; souvenirs d’enfance ou de la clandestinité madrilène; problèmes de l’action ministérielle dans le domaine des arts dont     la fonction et l’avenir de ce musée peuvent être emblématiques: il  n’aurait pas été impensable de reconstruire ma vie de ces trois années en référence narrative au Prado.(163)

Semprún sees the Prado as a narrative of his own life, but also of Spanish history. He fantasizes with re-writing the museum’s history and turning the history of the paintings into the history of Spain. For this, he dreams up an imaginary gallery that would begin with Las Meninas, move on to Goya, and end with Picasso’s Guernica. The arrangement of these works would trace the figure of the painter—central in the Meninas, a faint figure overshadowed by royal power in Goya’s Familia de Carlos IV, and nonexistent in Guernica.  In this last painting, “Pas l’ombre d’un peintre. Il n’a plus que l’Histoire, l’horreur nue de l’Histoire.”(165) While Semprún never systematically set out in his approach to organize his novels as a many volume autobiography around the paintings in the Prado –as he suggested he might do— as these few examples have shown, the paintings are nevertheless central to his life, his art, his memory, and the Spanish identity he has never forsaken. In the following words from Federico Sánchez vous salue bien, we see him in the midst of his dialogue with one of his favorite paintings:

Je reviens à la contemplation des Ménines. J’ai encore quelques fractions de seconde—une éternité, dans un récit bien agencé—pour imaginer cet     admirable écran les songes de ma vie. Ou la vie de mes songes. (147)


Along with Las Meninas, the most important painting from the Prado in Semprún’s work is Joachim Patinir’s El paso de la laguna Estigia. Throughout Semprún’s novel La montagne blanche, this painting has an organizing role in the narrative structure. Of all The first chapter is called “Une carte postale de Joachim Patinir” and the title of the last chapter is “Le passage du Styx”. In the opening chapter, the postcard of the painting has been sent to Paris by a friend in Madrid called Juan Larrea who has just visited the Prado. Larrea  gives the following report of  his tour. “Après, comme d’habitude, j’ai vérifié que le bleu–Patinir est encore ce qu’il était. Solía ser. Bleu fixe, bleu fou…”(17)Within these brief lines, in French, like the rest of the novel, the Spanish “solía ser” stands out as it repeats the idea—already stated in French-- of that which used to be. The writer of the postcard is a regular of the Prado and the tour he has taken is a habitual one, reassuring his friend that in the museum nothing has changed and that most importantly the shade of Patinir-blue is still the same fixed and crazy blue it always was. This color—the Patinir blue—is the color of the river Styx in the painting El paso de la laguna Estigia and the particular shade of blue—often defined by Semprún as  “marine claire” or a light navy—recurs in his work. Throughout his long exile, Patinir’s blue becomes for Semprún the symbol of an irretrievable world: his childhood in Madrid under Patinir-blue skies. In La montagne blanche Juan Larrea has returned to Madrid with a French girlfriend, Nadine. They are staying at the Ritz Hotel, just blocks from Semprún’s childhood home. Larrea is seducing Nadine—as he has other women-- with this privileged trip to his childhood haunts. Their hotel room looks out to the Prado Museum, he takes Nadine for walks in the Retiro, they visit the Prado everyday. But just as this romantic trip seems to be going well, a sudden glance up at the Madrid sky causes Larrea to disengage completely from the present, from the false and repetitive amorous relationships he pretends to involve himself in:

Le ciel au-dessus de sa tête était d’un bleu d’autrefois: bleu d’enfance. Bleu d’avant la proliferation des banlieues industrielles, d’avant la     transformation sous le régime precedent, de la capitale courtisane, bureaucratique et somme toute quelque peu provinciale, en une métropole en     expansion urbaine cancéreuse. Bleu d’avant la couronne des fumes de pollution diurne qui obnubilaient souvent, désormais, le ciel le plus bleu     d’Europe, jadis.

Ce jour-là, le bleu du ciel de Madrid était bleu tout d’une pièce…Bleu dense, mais pur, épuré même—épure de pleu—sans l’épaisseur visqueuse     de certains bleus tropicaux. Dense et léger, Presque insoutenable de densité légère, d’interminable bleuité…Juan avait  regardé le ciel bleu…Il    n’était plus dans cette journée d’avril si bien comencée…Il s’y trouvait jeté…Abandonné, oublié. Dejado de la mano de Dios…Le bleu d’un ciel d’enfance…Ca démasquait la vie: il n’y avait rien derrière le masque. Rien d’autre que la banalité de la vie. (196-198)


At the end of La montagne blanche Juan Larrea is drawn to his suicide by drowning --seduced  by the blue water of the Seine. As he lets the water flood his body, words and images of Patinir’s blue and of his childhood fly by his eyes in fragments: the blue of April, the intensely blue skies of Madrid near the Retiro, the indigo of the French river. Colors become words, not spoken, but cried out. Larrea dies bombarded with words for shades of blue that sound like the cries of the knife-grinder—the typical early morning sound of Madrid--that he heard so many years ago.

Larrea is not the only fictional alter ego that kills himself or is murdered in Semprún’s work. In Adieu, vive clarté, the author explains how killing these characters is his way of presenting death with a simulacra of his own end. Semprún’s alter-egos die violent deaths—murder or suicide— fitting to a proper novelistic “sacrifice.” (50). Yet the prevalence of death in his work paradoxically reveals Semprún’s desire to live. His memories of Madrid and his imaginative and physical returns to childhood are at the root of this desire. This is illustrated most movingly in Federico Sánchez vous salue bien in the scene describing his 1991 return to his family’s apartment, which at the time of his visit is empty. This is a moment of singular importance in his work as it has been preceded by decades of literary returns. Yet this is not a scene of disillusionment. In fact, it is the moment of ultimate reconciliation and the amplification of his experience of memory as revitalization. As he wanders around the apartment for the first time in fifty-five years—in what seems to him like another life (“une vie plus tard”)-- the images of death and loss are powerful, but so is the sense of continuity. A playful and defiant Spanish voice even emerges in the last line of the book:

Alors, dans ce lieu dévasté de ma mémoire ce paradis perdu et retrouva de l’enfance, j’ai dit à voix basse dans le silence de ma mémoire, une phrase en espagnol que je ne traduirai pas:

                       ¡Que me quiten lo bailado! (249)



(1). Among the most recent studies dealing with this aspect of Semprún is Ofelia Ferrán’s “Cuanto más escribo, más me queda por decir”: Memory, Trauma, and Writing in the Work of Jorge Semprún.” Modern Language Notes 116 (2001): 266-294.

(2). This part of his life is represented in the autobiographical 1966 film La Guerre est finie directed by Alain Resnais. Yves Montand plays the main character.


Works Cited

Cortanze, Gérard de. Le Madrid de Jorge Semprún. Paris: Editions du Chene—Hachette Livre. 1997

De la Mora, Constancia. In Place of Splendor: The Autobiography of a Spanish Woman. Harcourt, Brace and Company: New York, 1939.

Echevarría, Rosa María. “El ganador del premio Blanquerna opina que Bush ha dividido Europa.” ABC. Sábado, 1 de Febrero 2003.

Léon, María Teresa. Memoria de la melancolía. Madrid: Clásicos Castalia, 1998.

Semprún, Jorge. Adieu, vive clarté…Paris: Gallimard, 1998

-------. L’Algarabie. Paris: Gallimard, 1981

-------. Autobiografía de Fedérico Sanchez. Barcelona: Biblioteca Premios Planeta, 1977

-------. Federico Sánchez vous salue bien. Paris: Grasset, 1993

-------. La montagne blanche. Paris: Gallimard, 1986

-------. L’écriture ou la vie. Paris: Gallimard, 1994

-------. The Long Voyage. New York: Penguin, 1964

-------. Veinte años y un día. Barcelona: Tusquets, 2003.

Sicot, Bernard. Exilio, memoria e historia en la poesía de Luis Cernuda. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003.