Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184

The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprun is a cerebral narrative that has several themes. One of the most prominent themes—which is evident from the first sentence of the story—is human suffering. The unnamed narrator describes in vivid detail the miserable conditions inside a train boxcar crammed with 120 men. They are prisoners of war from France.

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The narrator is a Spanish communist who joined the French underground resistance guerrilla group, Maquis. This introduces the second theme of the book, which is war. The suffering of people described by the narrator gives a human face to the political nature of war. The other theme is oppression, specifically by fascist governments. Not only does the narrator have to survive the brutal programs of Nazi Germany, but has also experienced fascism in his homeland of Spain during the reign of Franco.

Due to the fact that the story revolves around World War II in Europe, the theme of xenophobia is also present throughout the story. Jews are methodically kidnapped, imprisoned and murdered. The narrator's Jewish friends begin to disappear and are killed by the German forces.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

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 time, his life is sporadically and uncontrollably interrupted by a sudden rush of painful memory, as an image or thought triggers recollection. At these moments, he is convinced that he is eternally alone, the ultimate exile, not only without a country (Franco is still in power in Spain) but also, and perhaps worse, no longer comfortable in the mental landscape which he once inhabited with joy. He thinks, repeatedly, “I’m all alone, when I remember this voyage. The solitude of this voyage is probably going to prey on me for the rest of my life.”

The passage of time and the effect of thoughts that he cannot suppress enable him finally to move beyond the prison of the self. He realizes that he can rejoin humanity by recognizing that in indulging his own suffering he is claiming, falsely, a unique and unjustifiable place of importance for himself. Almost of its own accord, the powerful apparatus for deliberation that he has constructed works: He realizes, recalling the death of the Jewish children, that he has kept this dreadful vision to himself out of a kind of perverse pride. It is his mark of singularity that only he has seen such horror. Watching postwar children who are reaching their adolescence, he decides that he has no right to keep to himself a story that “concerns everyone, especially the children who are sixteen today,” the children who were not murdered during the war. His resolution to act, to tell the story of the voyage, is based on Albert Camus’ contention that to choose action creates meaning, even if life cannot, rationally, be shown to have any meaning. Thus, in a final triumph of the rational mind that Manuel loves, combined with a faith that carries one across the void which logic cannot leap, he has found a way to combat the horror of the Holocaust. In this way, he has validated his intellectual and instinctive reactions to the world and demonstrated that the freedom he treasures is resilient enough to survive the consequences of tyranny. In addition, he has shown that his humanity, expressed in his love for his comrades, can never be broken. As he says, in an unusual but justifiable moment of sentiment when two young partisans permit an SS officer to live, “But I’m happy that these two young partisans have committed this foolish act...[that they] who have knowingly opted for the possibility of dying, who...so often faced death in a war that showed them no quarter, can emerge from this war clean and pure of heart.”

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