Characters

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Throughout most of the story the narrator, Manuel, is crammed into a boxcar with a hundred other people on a train headed for the Buchenwald concentration camp. He is a young member of the French Resistance. He fled from Spain after the Franco dictatorship came to power. He is captured in France and made a prisoner of war. Manuel is surrounded by strangers he hears but cannot see. In counting his time on the train he says,

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Four days, five nights. But I must have counted wrong, or else some of the days must have turned into nights. I have a surplus of nights, more nights than I can use

This quote highlights his ability to maintain humorous in a very dark situation. It is through Manuel that we learn the effects of trauma on the brain. He begins to see reality in a new light. He is able to free his mind despite being confined. What would have once felt absurd becomes normal. This makes space for new ways of thought and imagination. While many other characters are mentioned, the story always returns to the mind of Manuel. His isolation and ability to survive are highlighted time and time again.

The guy from Semur becomes Manuel’s closest friend in the boxcar. He was also in the French resistance. He shares many of Manuel’s values and becomes someone Manuel looks up to. He does not survive the boxcar ride.

Hans Freiberg is a Jew who was in the Tabou Resistance Network in France.

Michel. He is one of the few survivors who joins Manuel after the war.

Dr. Haas. He is the Gestapo officer who arrested Manuel.

Ramaillet. He is Manuel’s prison cell mate prior to when he is put on the train to Germany. He is disliked for his selfishness. He does not share with any of the other prisoners.

Haroux. He is in the concentration camp with Manuel. He maintains optimism throughout the experience despite his health deteriorating.

Ilse Koch. She is the heartless wife of the concentration camp general. She is described as unattractive and plays a very present role in the torture. She forces prisoners into sexual forays with her and then follows their death by turning their skin into lampshades.

Sigrid. She is a German girl Manuel meets after the war. Manuel is wary of all Germans after the war for pretending to be ignorant of what transpired during the Holocaust.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

Manuel

Manuel (mahn-WEHL), also called Gérard (zhay-RAHR), a twenty-one-year-old member of the French resistance and formerly a philosophy student in Paris. Manuel is a Spanish Red who fled to France after Francisco Franco’s victory in Spain. He is lucid, courageous, and a firm believer in humankind’s capacity for goodness and human solidarity, despite the horrors he witnesses in German concentration camps. As the novel begins, Manuel is traveling across Germany in a cattle car with other prisoners of war. The narrative then recounts his experience of the journey, his activities in the resistance before his arrest, the brutality of his existence in the camps, and finally his meditations after the war is over on the meaning of both his own sufferings and those of the other victims of the Nazis.

The guy from Semur

The guy from Semur (seh-MEWR), Manuel’s companion and soul mate on the train ride, also a young resistance fighter whose courage and dignity sustain him through most of the journey. Poorly educated and an inexperienced provincial, the guy from Semur nevertheless makes judgments that are remarkably sound. As the journey progresses, Manuel’s respect and admiration for him grows. Despite his courage and resolve, his fragile constitution cannot stand up to the rigors of the “long voyage,” and he dies of apparent heart failure shortly before the train arrives at the camp.

Hans Frieberg

Hans Frieberg (FREE-behrg), a German Jewish émigré in Paris. He is a philosophy student and Manuel’s friend. During the occupation, he joins the resistance because he does not want to die passively simply because he is a Jew. A member of the “Tabou” resistance network, he dies when the group’s hideout is overrun by the Gestapo.

Michel

Michel (mee-SHEHL), the third of the group of student friends that includes Manuel and Hans. Michel also joins the resistance, operating under the name of Jacques. Like Manuel, he survives the war. At the novel’s end, he accompanies Manuel on a journey to discover precisely what has become of Hans.

Dr. Haas

Dr. Haas, the Gestapo officer who arrests Manuel. He is characterized by his dapper appearance, his gold teeth, and his brutality.

Ramaillet

Ramaillet (rah-mi-YAY), a black marketeer who is Manuel’s cell mate at the prison at Auxerres, where Manuel is sent before being deported to Germany. He is the epitome of the small-minded, selfish individual who seeks to profit from the war. Although he regularly receives packages containing food in prison, he refuses to share them with his cell mates, preferring to wait until the latter are asleep to satisfy his hunger. When confronted with his selfishness, he speaks of the “injustice” of having to share with others who have nothing to offer in return.

Haroux

Haroux (ah-REW), one of Manuel’s fellow prisoners in the concentration camp; he also survives the war. He is cheerful, imperturbable, and proud of being French. Although he is still relatively young, his health has been destroyed by the rigors of camp existence. His hair is prematurely white, and his heart is severely weakened. After the war, he is disillusioned with his homeland when French authorities refuse to offer financial assistance to Manuel because he is Spanish.

Ilse Koch

Ilse Koch (EEL-zeh kosh), the wife of the concentration camp commandant. She is a short, squat woman with cold eyes and short hair. She takes prisoners as lovers; after their execution, she has their skin turned into lampshades.

Sigrid

Sigrid (see-GRIHD), a beautiful, green-eyed German girl, a model by profession and an acquaintance of Manuel after the war. Although he is attracted to her, Manuel finds it difficult to overlook the fact that she is German. Like many of her compatriots, she claims to be ignorant of what transpired in the death camps, preferring to live a hedonistic existence in the present.

The Characters

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Not only is Manuel the one character of any dimension in the book; it is actually his mind that is the novel’s focal point, the novel’s primary character. Some of the other people whom Manuel meets are momentarily striking in his description of them (particularly the man he rides literally pressed against for the entire train trip, called “the guy from Semur”), but none of them has any real existence beyond those moments when that person is in the narrator’s presence. These characters are not reduced to caricature or type—Jorge Semprun is particularly adept at capturing character with a short remark and at suggesting complex psychological dimensions in a brief conversation—but their primary function is to reflect or react to Manuel’s mood. Manuel’s mental processes are so important because Semprun has written The Long Voyage to demonstrate that the mind is the source of a person’s strength and to show that the inner working of a person’s mind is the best way to know his spirit and soul.

Semprun believes that integrity of character comes from clarity of thought and openness to the challenge of contradictory ideas. His commitment to the absolute freedom of expression stems from his hatred of the enclosures that any totalitarian system places over the minds of its subjects. Manuel is a warrior whose weapon is his mental agility, which permits him to act effectively in situations that present no easy solution and to endure situations in which effective action is not possible.

Manuel’s derision for SS methodology is separate from his hatred for their butchery. He sees the SS as the ultimate expression of a state that cannot adjust to spontaneity and that hates and fears the unexpected and the uncontrollable—precisely those qualities of life which Manuel regards as essential to the democratic society he defends. Manuel’s refusal to hate Germans is part of his struggle to see people as individuals, not as abstractions, and to forge a world in which a man’s existence is determined by an inner sense of continuing discovery.

Manuel’s ability to dissociate himself temporarily from unpleasant surroundings and to live in a created realm enables him to handle stress well, and his facility for reconstructing the sensory impact of a vital, life-enhancing scene supports him by revivifying the best elements of the life that he is struggling to preserve. The closing pages of the novel, written in the form of an extended paragraph to evoke the rush of sensations in his mind as the long journey concludes, are like a final fusion of mental assessment and physical reaction. The simultaneous assimilation of data and expression of intent affirms Manuel’s methods and the possibility of his survival. Much too intelligent and experienced to have any illusions of romantic heroism, Manuel is an archetype of the existential hero made popular by Albert Camus—a hard man in a hard world whose heart and soul are still humanity’s best hope.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

Boyers, Robert. “The Voyage of Jorge Semprun,” in Atrocity and Amnesia: The Political Novel Since 1945, 1985.

Butor, Michel. Passing Time, 1960.

Genies, Bernard. “L’Experience de J. Semprun a Buchenwald,” in La Quinzaine Litteraire. CCCXXI (March, 1980), pp. 24-25.

Schmigalle, Gunther. “Jorge Semprun’s Kritik des Kommunismes,” in Iberoamerica. XII (1984), pp. 3-21.

Sinnegen, J. Narrative and Ideology, 1982.

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