Communist and exile, Spaniard Jorge Semprun’s luck runs out when he is caught by the Nazis while working for the French resistance. Too young to have fought in the Spanish Civil War, Semprun has chosen to flee his native land to help spread the communist revolution throughout the rest of Europe.
Then he ends up in the concentration camp at Buchenwald at the mercy of the Germans. He survives through luck and cunning. The lucky part is that Semprun is the scion of a wealthy, bourgeois Spanish family. Unlike many of his comrades, he chose to become a communist. Having had a privileged education, he speaks fluent German and so is immediately put to work in one of the camp’s administrative offices.
This enables his second means of survival. The communists in the camp all know who their fellow revolutionaries are, and they fix the system to ensure that their comrades are not sent to summary execution. Thus, Semprun in his adminstrative role can mark down that a new arrival actually possesses some vital skill, such as being an electrician, even if that is a downright lie. In this way, he can spare the communist prisoner’s life, because the Nazis needed some of the inmates at Buchenwald to use as slave labour in their munitions factories.
The ‘beautiful Sunday’ of the book’s title is a just an ordinary December day in 1944. However, the book jumps backwards and forwards in time to examine other periods of Semprun’s life, analysing events both before the war and long after his incarceration.
For Semprun has lost his faith.
Long after the war, Semprun reads One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and it changes everything. Firstly, it provides him with a model of how to write a memoir of his concentration-camp experiences. He too decides to base his story around a single twenty-four-hour period.
Secondly, reading Solzhenitsyn, the scales fall from his eyes. Suddenly, Semprun realises that he is both a victim of totalitarianism, but also a person who has indirectly fought to bring terror and repression to other people’s lives.
I was thinking that Stalin himself had been like an immense concentration camp, like an ideological gas chamber, like a crematorium of Correct Thought: he went on killing even after he had disappeared. I was thinking, above all, that Stalin had destroyed any possibility that our memories could be innocent.
Semprun’s growing disillusionment with communism means that he is expelled from the party, even though he has been working undercover in Fascist Spain for decades. His personal experience gives him a power of insight that many others lack, especially when examining the hypocrisy of the Soviet leaders. For example, he gives a brilliant analysis of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous Secret Speech of 1956, when he became the first of the USSR’s leaders to condemn the Great Terror.
The secret report … drew a sharp, clear line of demarcation between a good and a bad period of terror, between those who were guilty in a bad way, between innocent victims and victims who got no more than they deserved. And this frontier was drawn through the mid-1930’s at the time when the Great Purge was beginning to decimate the Stalinist party itself
What a Beautiful Sunday! is a unique chronicle of a very unusual life. Originally written in French, it is beautifully translated by Alan Sheridan, who has made this very complicated narrative read like it was composed in English from the start. Unfortunately, it looks like it may be out of print, so you may have to dig around in a second-hand bookshop to find a copy.
As a last aside, have a look at the cover image above from the 1984 Abacus edition. Can you see the eyes in the tree? Sneaky …