A blog post in which I come to the realisation that my last post was a beginning and not and ending. That I must go deeper still.
The Red Triangle II
Continuing to make my way through Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life (English translation, Viking Books 1997), I find that I am gazing into a new space in the abyss of memory and trauma.
I don’t now mean the actual horrors of Buchenwald (how can one ever grasp them) but rather the traces of that horror – the “death” that is survival as Semprún puts it. I’m also absorbing the unavoidable logic that the barely fathomable Nazi evil to which he was both witness and subject was humanly perpetrated, and thus it was inarguably human. That we cannot take refuge in it’s inhumanity is a philosophical proposition woven through every page of this remarkable book. It’s a terrible truth but one I am more than willing to swallow however much it will keep me up at night. I am already wiser.
So I pick up Literature or Life after a short pause in which the necessary hum of daily life intervened providing me with enough oxygen to carry on. I find Semprún in conversation with Claude-Edmonde Magny. She reads out excerpts from her letter to him about his poetry dating from before his internment. They discuss the halting, problematic book he is trying to write about Buchenwald. We will presently learn that it was too soon to begin to address the horror and a period of amnesia will be sought. As ever Semprún spins the narrative reel back and forth, building in layers of association and meaning.
As I tune in I shrink to allow a coin the size of the London Eye to drop into my brain. It’s a little bit Alice in Wonderland but I feel I must become smaller to accommodate knowledge of such proportions. As I turn each page my mind also begins to work like the ferryman of old, back and forth across the rivers of memory and association, and I know I must write again. Of so many things. My grandmother’s flat perched in a building with two winding marble staircases at either side, this mirror image holding for the child me the fascination of identical twins. My first “art perfomance” – the moment aged seven I released my pyjamas from their pegs on the balcony of that fifth floor apartment and watched them sail down onto the roof of a passing taxi never to return. All must be recalled. Rescued. This way I am certain not to falter in my task. Unravel the post memory tangle I shall.
Often words serve to skate over the surface of our understanding, and we must wait for time to deepen the cut of blade on ice to take us further under. My father was not at Buchenwald or any other German concentration camp, and his internment in the French camps of Argelès sur Mer and Barcarès were in duration but a third of Semprún’s incarceration. Held captive behind barbed wired on the beaches of France, the forms of death encountered would also be different to that which engulfed Semprún at Buchenwald. These were not death camps but more truly camps of indifference and neglect – their function as holding centres for Dachau and Mauthausen deportees would come later. Conditions were punishing and insanitary, and many of the exiles did not survive.
There are scant details of my father’s work as a reporter with a Republican tank regiment, and his passage from Spain, but we can guess at the most probable combination of luck, death, terror and comradeship. An emotional melange, a pic ‘n mix – without choice. No pic and all mix.
So I wait for the coin to drop – Semprún is about to reveal the unspoken mysteries of my father’s condition. In addition to acquiring the term exile and slowly garnering the substance beneath it, I must add something else.
I had known officially since the age of 13 that my father was ill. A bewildering and secret malady. A plethora of pill bottles, an often withdrawn father who resided with us in England, and the one who seemed to brighten significantly in Spain. Prone to anxiety and disappearing behind a book he was also affectionate and funny – delighting in acute observations of British eccentricity and the many quirks of his adoptive home. But the English winters conspired against him, and even our trips to Spain could not relieve his homesickness for the other Spain – the golden days of his childhood and the sweetness of his schooldays at the Instituto Escuela in Madrid. He bumped along not knowing how loveable he was – a bewildered and absent presence. I remember the silences which I now think aped forgetting. His bitterness was tempered by his gentle soul.
This in time was understood by the older me as clinical depression, and a lifelong battle with a serious cycle of mental illness. Exactly how serious I would find out much later. Recently in fact. Very recently. And now somehow Semprún has come to help me make sense of it, to allow me to give it a new name – exile plus. My skin crawls, I plug Vaughan Williams in on a loop, and my skittish mind turns to triple A batteries and platinum bank cards. Exile plus.
My primary source for insider knowledge on the emotional texture of Spanish exile has been the writer Max Aub who lived his exile in Mexico City. No-one has taught me more in a shorter space of time than Aub, about it’s acid bite, and the compulsive nature of his creative output. What I mean in simple terms was Aub’s need to create in order to “make soil.” To recreate lost territory with memoirs, journals, plays, and novels. He even invented an artist and faked his monograph, works and all – this was a land from which to launch mischief, satire and bile. Forced into self publication in Mexico, and lacking a profile in Spain he was further embittered. In Aub I discern the urgency of mark making. Of leaving traces of existence. And it’s gone a long way in explaining the extraordinary importance to my father of his creative project to become a playwright of note. It was not ego it was survival.
Through Aub I had come to know that writing was country. It was a haven. But the writing project was also my father’s nemesis, falling on deaf ears as it did. It seemed to mock him and give Franco his ghastly victory anew. A painful re-enactment of loss.
With Semprún I track the indelible traces of trauma – not just the long haul of permanent exile but the effects of war and imprisonment. What I hadn’t absorbed until now was the detail. The existential horror of the every day which may have driven dad’s illness. A life quite possibly punctured by searing traumatic memory, which would now be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And a life medicated thus, with the old fashioned psychiatry of electric shocks and tricyclic antidepressants.
Of course there is a simple way to frame Jorge Semprún’s distress and say he was haunted by Buchenwald, but we must avoid such language as it skims the surface and won’t yield the complexities. The following excerpts allow us to go deeper.
“I’d woken up with a start.”
“Awakening had not brought comfort, however, had not swept away the anguish – on the contrary. It deepened the distress while transforming it. Because the return to wakefulness, to the sleep of life, was terrifying in itself. That life was a dream – after the radiant reality of the camp – is what was terrifying” p155
“Everything would begin all over again as long as I was alive, or rather, as long as I was revenant. As long as I was tempted to write. The joy of writing I was beginning to realise would never dispel the sorrow of memory. Quite on the contrary: writing sharpened it, deepened it, revived it. Made it unbearable.
Only forgetting could save me.” p161
This the agonising “death life” of the survivor, with the nightly bind, a scratched disc of all too vivid awakenings. With no escape, as the writer’s balm is the rub of remembrance and a wretched site of re-traumatisation. Forgetting is the only salvation he says, but Buchenwald would surely be seared on the psyche. Etched on the emotional retina for good.
My father, like Semprún, paused a goodly while before attempting his returns to the trauma site in his early plays. He was busy finishing his education and gaining a university lectureship, and trying to get on with the business of living. Perhaps he was also busy trying to get on with the business of forgetting.
But many exiled writers like Aub and my father were ultimately compelled to write as a form of existential return. The alternative was to accept a living death – erasure from both contemporary and historical memory. We know too that traumatic experience also draws one on a loop to return, but the perils are obvious. In these circumstances writing and memory create a psychologically fatal paradox – damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Trapped as a fly in the spider’s web – the only psychological certainty is a form of living death. When you put it like this, the wonder is that dad was able to recover and chose life many times over, and that ultimately writing as a pleasure and a sanctuary could be found in places.
I think like Semprún that my father moved between memory and amnesia. The briefcase of pills, the journeys to the ECT suite and my mother’s loving and sustained ministrations kept him with us. I’m not a fan of old style psychiatry nor the modern brand if I’m honest – but I’m so grateful for the years together. I just wish I had understood him more. The struggle he faced now that I grasp it takes my breath away.