Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309
The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprún is the story of the main character Manuel (also called Gérard). He is a young, intelligent, and optimistic member of the Spanish Red. After Francisco Franco comes to power in Spain he flees to France. The story begins with him in a boxcar crammed with strangers. The train is headed for the Buchenwald concentration camp. Though Manuel cannot see the people he is surrounded by, he hears their voices. Some are crying out, some talk to him. Throughout the journey he has flashbacks that explain how he came to be on this train. The sensations on the train are putrid and the mental strain of being in a dark, smelly, and terrifying space on the way to sure death are sickening to the reader. However, the reader quickly becomes impressed with Manuel’s ability to remain calm and survive. As part of his mental escape, flashbacks explain his life story. He was studying philosophy when Germany took control of France. He joined the resistance and had a growing understanding of the importance of freedom. His studies taught him the strength of the mind and the necessity to stay strong to one’s values. He was arrested by Gestapo officer, Dr. Haas and was put in a French prison to await being sent to Buchenwald. He remembers Ramaillet, the cellmate he greatly disliked. During the ride Manuel meets the guy from Semur. He is also young and was a member of the resistance. Manuel admires his strength in adversity. However, the train ride ends with the guy from Semur passing. Manuel is brought to think of all the suffering and the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. Manuel enters Buchenwald and becomes further determined to survive. He does make it out alive and is able to look back on the experience of war.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256
The opening of The Long Voyage compels total attention, as the narrator begins speaking about a nightmare journey in progress. From his first words, “There is the cramming of the bodies into the boxcar, the throbbing pain in the right knee. The days, the nights. I force myself and try to count the days, to count the nights,” a mood of extraordinary psychological intensity is set. The narrator—his name, background, personality, and occupation a mystery—reports that he is confined among 120 men “stacked in on top of one another” in a freight car moving across occupied France in 1943. It is apparent from his description and the terse tone of his speech that the conditions of physical stress and psychological horror which he is experiencing will require an exceptional effort of mind and body for survival. At first, the details that he presents force the reader to concentrate on the purely physical demands of the situation; then, as the narrator begins to demonstrate the ways in which he uses the powers of his mind and imagination to combat these pressures, it becomes apparent that even the strongest body will not have sufficient strength without a complementary mental fitness. In a further widening of scope, the narrator employs associative images from the unfolding present, the long inland voyage of the title, to provide connections to the past and projections into the future beyond the completion of the journey.
During the five days that the German prison train carrying members of the Maquis (the legendary French underground) moves toward its destination, the narrator, a so-called Spanish Red who has fled from the Basque country into exile in France, describes his life in the Resistance, his capture and transportation to the camp, some fragments about his existence in the camp, his reflections upon his liberation at the end of the war, and his reasons for waiting sixteen years to write about his experiences. The surging core of the narrative is the journey, so intense and desperate, so completely absorbing, that sporadic relief is necessary for the reader as well as for the narrator. Consequently, like a motif in a musical composition that recurs as a point of departure and return, the dreadful trip continues, interrupted strategically by related episodes that progressively reveal more about the narrator and his life.
Driven from his home in Barcelona when he was thirteen years old by Francisco Franco’s Fascist forces, the narrator, Manuel (who is known to his colleagues by his nom de guerre, Gérard), was studying philosophy in France when that country was conquered by the Germans. Choosing to become a member of the Resistance, he was active in partisan operations until betrayal led to his capture. He begins the journey to the concentration camp in Weimar with the same attitude with which he approaches every new situation. He has consciously trained himself, in accordance with his vocation as a scholar-philosopher, to attune very closely the responses of his mind to any occurrence. He has already prepared a basic series of precepts and principles for any course of action. In addition, although he seems very focused on the self, he maintains a sympathetic curiosity about his colleagues’ behavior and is prepared to work with them for the welfare of all. These characteristics serve him well in the chaos of the boxcar, in which survival depends on attention to detail (where one stands, how one drinks, whom one trusts), and Manuel, although only twenty years old, has had considerable experience with conditions demanding rapid action, physical endurance, and quick wit.
As the voyage continues, Manuel is reminded of incidents in his life previous to his capture. His commitment to freedom is shown in its formative stages as he enthusiastically tests his ideas against those of his fellow students; then his faith is given actuality in the emerging practical strength that enables him to maintain his sanity while other men crumble. His belief that he fights not as a “patriot” but to maintain his (and the world’s) essential humanity is tested by the bestial acts of the SS but is reinforced by contact with German conscripts. The understated heroism of his colleagues in the Maquis lives in his mind as an inspiration, but each individual death is a unique, surprising, and unsettling experience, sometimes so bizarre that a kind of gallows humor must be used to alleviate his rage at the Nazis, which might further threaten any rational action.
On the fourth night of the voyage, the story unfolds into the future, as Manuel introduces events following the war, which, as they occur, lead him back to the trip itself. The entire sequence of events following his liberation in April, 1945, is an example of the disjunction of differing perceptions. He cannot share in the banter of the liberating soldiers, nor can he adjust to the “normal” routine of official procedures. He carries his awareness of the camp with him into the world; he remains distant (thus, paradoxically, more attractive) when his mates are flirting with women; he has become intensely interested in others on the “inside,” especially the Jews who have known suffering beyond his own. This interlude, even though it is rife with uncertainty, is nevertheless a relief from the trip, which becomes more harrowing with each digression.
As the men are tested with increasing severity, the interludes become less a leavening of tension and more a complement to it, changing its magnitude, but not its awful persistence. During this period, instead of imagining a positive existence to counterbalance the present, Manuel, in writing about it, makes the trip somewhat more bearable by juxtaposing its worst moments to even more terrible visions of evil. The story of the arrival and subsequent slaughter of a group of Jewish children and the story of the disappearance of his friend Hans (a German Jew known as “Phillipe”) are attempts to confront the worst obscenity with its only antidote, the most unusual and purest heroism. The journey moves to its conclusion with the death of “the guy from Semur,” Manuel’s soul mate for the five days which have become a lifetime. The last moments of the trip are described while a rush of imagery streams through the narrator’s mind, the focus narrowed again to the physical trial of the men now at or beyond the limits of sanity, at the threshold of death.
Although the voyage is concluded, the novel continues in a brief second book, almost a coda, in which the narrative perspective shifts to the third person, gradually increasing the distance that the narrator maintains from the experience and placing the story into the context of history. As Manuel enters the camp where he will spend the remainder of the war, his thoughts turn to his greatest fear and his most significant motivation to survive and record his exploits: “Gérard tries to engrave all this in his memory, meanwhile vaguely thinking that it is well within the realm of possibility that the impending death of all the spectators may efface forever the memory of this spectacle.” As “the certainty of this idea takes hold of him,” his resolve to persevere, after the horror of the long voyage, is very strong. The thought that he is about to “leave the world of the living” pulses like a throbbing image of the monstrous reality he must face. The novel itself is his testament to the effects of the awful experience and the possibilities of enduring to continue the fight against Fascism.
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