Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

What a Beautiful Sunday! is both dirge and hymn. It is a condemnation of human callousness and brutality as well as a celebration of the human spirit which creates, loves, and sustains. It is a novel of education, in that the narrator recalls how he discovered certain truths about human nature during his time at Buchenwald.

One lesson he learns is that the worst circumstances cannot destroy his ability to appreciate life’s joys and revelations. Little events take on great meaning while larger events pale into insignificance. An oak tree seen on a winter’s day becomes the emblem of love and beauty. A fellow prisoner’s idle jest illuminates life and enriches it, even while a crematorium belches smoke from burned human beings and the shrieks of the doomed can be heard in the distance. Love, hope, courage, and faith conquer evil in this novel. Yet human political systems, whether they be National Socialism or Communism or capitalism, cannot supply man with what he needs to live and make life meaningful. In short, Semprun warns the reader about believing in any system; heaven is not meant to be on earth, nor can it ever be here.

The narrator also learns that there are far worse things than being sent to a concentration camp by an enemy. The worst thing is to give one’s life to a belief which turns out to be not only unrealistic and unattainable but also completely false. Communism is like James Joyce’s Ireland: an old sow eating her farrow. Those young people who devoted their lives and hearts to the spreading of Communism throughout the world were among the first Stalin massacred. His successors, though not as cruel, were, in Semprun’s estimation, just as untrue to the belief that all who labor for their comrades will create utopia on earth.

In the final estimation, What a Beautiful Sunday! is about the search of one man for life’s meaning. If by the novel’s end he has not yet found meaning, he at least realizes where it never has resided. Beware of creeds and ideologues, he warns, for pursuing their vision of paradise may lead to Treblinka, Buchenwald, and the camps of the gulag.