After World War Two, a train carries the physically and spiritually broken people who were taken from all over Europe to the German concentration camps back through the Netherlands to a sanatorium in Paris. The Triestine Slovenian, Radko Suban, who has behind him not only the destruction of the camps, but also terrible experiences with Fascism, is also taken to the sanatorium when a doctor discovers a shadow on his lungs. In the camps, Suban had worked as an orderly, and, with an ever-smaller group of people, had carried the dead to the ovens of the crematorium.
At the sanatorium, he falls in love with Arlette, a twenty-four-year-old French nurse who embodies the future, love, and indeed life itself. With her, he experiences occasional moments of romantic intimacy that he had almost forgotten could happen, and enjoys the embrace of the nature around the sanatorium. Because of their different views on the world – Radko's having been formed above all by the cruelty of the camps – they frequently argue and begin to despair about the relationship. In the letters addressed to Arlette and in his reflections, Radko ponders his own psychic destruction as a result of the torment of the camps; without Arlette's help, he is incapable of loving and understanding the world beyond the camps.
While living in the sanatorium, Radko and the other returnees also discuss current political events, which each of the patients interprets in their own way. They pass the time by telling the tragic stories that they have experienced. Radko travels to his native Trieste to visit his mother who is scheduled to have an operation. Arlette promises that, despite pressure from her family to marry a wealthy man in the village, she will wait for him and will one day join him in the Trieste, that Radko has so lovingly and picturesquely described.