Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Semprun’s essential task in The Long Voyage is to bear witness to the atrocity that permanently altered the spiritus mundi, to show the kind of person who could live through the horror and still retain some semblance of humanity, and to demonstrate that the qualities of character that made survival and resistance possible are also crucial to the construction of a society in which such evil would not be possible. The distortion of reason in the twisted, lockstep logic of the SS is constantly presented in contrast to the pure reason of the truly free man. Nevertheless, for all that reason can do, there are some things beyond its capabilities, some actions so terrible that anyone “imbued with the prejudices, the realities of the past”—that is, normal life—will find them impossible to imagine. Where The Long Voyage goes beyond even the authentic, convincing description of incarceration and torture is in Semprun’s understanding of the effect of these experiences on the camp survivor. When Manuel, at twenty a historical scholar, a philosopher, an athlete, and a linguist, is driven beyond reason, his mental reconstruction can serve as a guide to psychic survival in the modern age.

The most significant manifestation of Manuel’s temporary psychosis is his changing response to his experiences. At first, he resolves to report what he has seen so that no one will be able to say, in stupefied amazement after it is too late, “What do you know about that?” Then, as horror piles upon horror, he decides that he will tell no one, believing that he is now beyond the comprehension of people who have not shared his trials. He has also decided that he must somehow forget, regardless of whether he will ever be ready to remember. For sixteen years, he says nothing, and during that...

(The entire section is 737 words.)