What a Beautiful Sunday! takes its name from a startling remark uttered by prisoner Fernand Barizon on a clear winter’s day in the Buchenwald death camp, one of the Nazis’ most infamous human slaughterhouses. Looking back on his time at Buchenwald from the perspective of several decades, the narrator, known among other names as Gerard Sorel, remains fascinated by Barizon’s remark and tries to discover why he finds it so insightful. The novel is author Jorge Semprun’s attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible: his youthful infatuation with Communism, his increasing involvement in international struggles to make Europe communistic, his internment in Buchenwald, and his subsequent realization that Communism is as much a sham as any other human institution. It is a novel of one man’s education and coming to maturity.
Slowly, even obliquely, through anecdotes and snatches of recalled conversation, Semprun re-creates the hell of Buchenwald. It is not Semprun’s intention to add another journalistic treatise about death camps to the collection of such reports. He wants to establish what it was like to be one of the better-favored camp residents whose lot was not as terrible as that of the Jews, Gypsies, Russians, and other hated races or nationalities. A secondary purpose is to superimpose the madness of mass killings upon the sylvan woodland of Buchenwald, a place made famous by the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the eighteenth century.
The story begins with the depiction of a lone oak tree. Self-contained, aloof, an emblem of God-supplied beauty, its slender branches framing the smoking crematorium, the tree, spared by the Nazi camp creators out of respect for Goethe, is both a thing whose beauty separates it from the camp and an integral part of camp life. To gaze upon it allows the prisoners to realize that a higher power is at work in the universe and can be found even in Buchenwald. The tree, which at first glance appears ordinary, takes on a supernatural glow when the narrator recalls Goethe and the lost world of his Germany which the tree symbolizes. The violence and horror of the twentieth century, so concentrated in camps such as Buchenwald, are never far from him. As he looks at the tree one day, he is nearly killed by an SS guard waving a pistol. The guard apparently is ready to shoot him when the narrator asks the guard to look at the tree and think about its connection to the revered Goethe. For a moment, even SS terror is overcome by civilized impulse as the guard puts away his gun.
(The entire section is 1045 words.)