Book Review: Williams prof's biography is high adventure at its true-life best

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In "Exile, Writer, Soldier, Spy, a biography of the storied life of Jorge Semprun," by Soledad Fox Maura, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Williams College, we have a complete and celebratory tribute to one of Spain's most important intellectuals and patriots. Semprun's extraordinary life in war, literature, political intrigue and film is a gripping true-life tale of survival, espionage, glamor and fame.

Semprun, born into the aristocratic family of Prime Minister Antonio Maura, was active in the French Resistance after Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and his family was driven into exile. He was arrested and sent to Buchenwald by the Nazis, but afterward he was a legendary spy for the Partido Comunista Espanol (PCE), the Communist Party of Spain. He made his mark in the world of literature and film, and finally, toward the end of his life, returned to Spain as Minister of Culture for the new Socialist Party in Spain.

This biography is expertly written in a detailed flowing part-by-part telling of Semprun's life as it happened with many references and excerpts from those who knew and worked with him and were deeply affected by him. There are also the carefully researched intimate facts of his life that read much like a thriller espionage novel as his life was nothing short of heroic in its intensity, fateful encounters and circumstances. His clandestine life of danger as a glamorous secret agent, his presence as an international literary and film sensation, and perhaps most importantly, the impact of his writing on the political world of modern Spain is high adventure at its true-life best. Maura's examination of his life is reverent, as well as honest, in revealing the many-sided aspects of a man, who because of circumstance and a strong devotion to his native Spain, lived several different lives, constantly reinventing who he must be.

Semprun's first book, "The Long Voyage" (1963) was a novel about what it was like to be a deportee and it won the prestigious Prix Formentor prize. His many novels, plays and screenplays went on to win other illustrious literary prizes. In 1966, Semprun met French filmmaker Alain Resnais who asked him to write a screenplay for his autobiographical novel, "Las Guerre est finie." Sempr n's close friend, actor Yves Montand, played Sempr n's fictional alter ego in the story, Diego. By 44-years-old, Sempr n had become a prize-winning novelist and screenwriter. His screenplay for "Las Guerre est finie," was nominated for an Academy Award and his very next screenplay in 1970 for the film, "Z," co-written and directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, was also nominated for an Academy Award. In 1972, Semprun directed his own film, Le deux memoires, a "portrait of Spaniards from across the political spectrum and their views on the Spanish Civil war," introducing an important commentary on Franco's decline. Semprun's writing and films are a singular and revelatory history of the complicated political and cultural phenomenon of modern Spain under the Franco regime and after his dictatorship. This biography by Maura is powerful in bringing to life every aspect of this important man's complicated, enigmatic, but heroic adventures that have shaped the way we know Spain and 20th-century Europe.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com.


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