Intellectuals have a new role to play today, says Jorge Semprun

We are faced with a new duty, and that is to defend democracy. And it is very difficult to have a collective ideal about democracy, said Spanish author Jorge Semprun, during a recent meeting with a group of journalists. In Greece to present his new book Adieu vive clarte (published in Greek by Exantas, translation by Sara Benveniste and Maria Papadima), the author visited both Thessaloniki and Athens. In Athens, the book launch was an occasion to talk directly to the author about current events and listen to his opinion regarding the recent terrorist attacks in America. A man with an eventful life from a young age -he spent two years at the Buchenwald concentration camp and was a member of the Spanish Communist Party until his expulsion in 1964 – Semprun’s memory, both the historical and the personal, has acted as an adviser, a guide and an associate for his writing. What I find today is that there’s an absence of historical memory. Take globalization, for example. Whether we’re for it or totally against it, it’s wrong to think it began only a few days ago. It is a continuing process and historical knowledge teaches this duration, said the author, adding that given new developments in current events, historical memory can work backward. What is the new reality following the terrorist attacks on September 11? Up to now, responsibility for every terrorist attack – and there have been quite a few in recent years – was undertaken by an organization, which also explained the reasons for attacking, however irrational. In this case we are also asked to interpret the meaning of what happened, said Semprun. According to the author, one of the century’s greatest fears was the hatred toward democracy, from both Right and Left. What happened was an attack on democracy. The essence is not that it came from Islam, but that it was against democracy. We should not treat this as a clash of civilizations. Islam and terrorism cannot be synonymous. Given the current situation, there is an increasing need for clear-headed thinking, especially from those who have both knowledge and experience. Can the intellectual world step in and interpret this new reality? It is obvious that intellectuals ought to get involved, said Semprun. They have a different role to play today, however, compared to the one back in the 1930s or 1950s. Their relationship with current events is much more personal, whether through small groups or publications. In the past, Gramsci referred to an ‘organic’ intellectual, while today there is an inorganic intellectual. At 78, Semprun is not ready to go without all that renews him. I try to stay young, because I’m old enough and I should have grandchildren. I’m still very curious with what is going on around me. I never think about how much time I’ve got left. I live each day as if it were my first, said the author. And that is why he keeps writing. He has decided to re-examine a number of issues that have concerned him over the years, but in a less biographical and more fictional way. Besides, the hero of the book he is currently working on – in Spanish – is Federico Sanchez, his well-known character. For the time being, however, Adieu vive clarte is an invitation to walk with him in the streets of Paris, just before World War II. It is where he lived as an adolescent and as an exile. It is his second homeland.

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