The Long Voyage Themes
by Jorge Semprun

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The Long Voyage Themes

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.

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

(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 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...

(The entire section is 921 words.)