Primo Levi was a chemist, young (younger than I am now), when he was rounded up by the anti-Semitic Italian fascist authorities and bundled into a train and sent to Auschwitz. (This was at the beginning of 1944.) He survived two winters in the infamous concentration camp, was left behind due to illness when all those fit to leave were rushed away ahead of the Russian advance, spent most of 1945 being ferried around Eastern Europe by the confused and bureaucratic USSR, then arrived home, in Turin, pretty fucking exhausted. He sat down and wrote If This Is A Man, a harrowing and heart-breaking memoir of his time in Auschwitz. A decade later, he wrote The Truce, which detailed his (broadly uplifting) journey home. I read them together, in this omnibus edition, which is probably for the best.
If This Is A Man is horrible. It is a tough, gruelling book about a nasty, cruel state of affairs that-
LOOK: I cannot write a review of this book without patronisingly stating “the Holocaust was bad”. Of course I know that everyone knows the fucking Holocaust was bad, and this was recent, this was seventy years ago. Seventy years ago a country in western europe went mad and bloated on the coagulated bile brought to the surface by economic hardships and-
LOOK: I’m not a historian. I’m not in a position to discuss the content of this book, that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to offer my interpretations on what happened, the reasons or the-
LOOK: what happened has been described with far more aplomb in many other places. I won’t try.
Levi’s prose (here we go) is tight. It is clinical. It is factual. It describes the great bond he felt with someone, the horrors they went through together, whatever, then describes the other man’s (it is usually a man – gender segregation in the camps) death in a single sentence. The heaviness, the weight of the topic is held not through terseness, but by language that does what it has to, language both functional and descriptive.
As, of course, purple prose in the death camps wouldn’t be appropriate.
But what Levi focuses on (his title, of course, the clue) is the humanity that has been lost by the perpetrators of the abuse, and the enforced dehumanisation that has happened to those men and women who have become nothing, absolutely nothing, to (some) other human beings.
There are no explanations of why – because there wasn’t at the time, for Levi – but there is instead a care taken to humanise his fellow prisoners when and wherever he can. It is beautiful and it is sad, reading of the wily hero of each anecdote being arbitrarily selected for gassing in the next chapter, or gaining a blister than goes septic and thus mortal, or being executed for having diarrhoea too many days in a row…
It’s horrible. And it’s upsetting, and it is a relentless chain of (as it was, as it was, in Levi’s life, in his actual life) unpleasantness, and there’s no real escape from-
But this is trite, isn’t it, this is tawdry?
ASIDE: The Truce follows Levi’s journey back home, which is much more emotional, I suppose, because a) (cynically) the reader has invested more in the “character” and b) there is more variety in what happens – people are nice to him, the natives of Poland who meet these starving victims of Auschwitz are often compassionate: they share and they give and they offer condolences and apologies. At one point, one of the survivors gives a hunk of bread to a group of German PoWs, all of whom were almost certainly killed by vigilantes hours later… The emotions are more conflicting – everyone, not just the politicians and the victims and the soldiers, everyone is confused. I suppose, one could say, everyone living in Europe (and plenty of other places) was a victim of the Second World War. I don’t know if that’s fair or-
But what I was saying, what I was going to write, is: for me, from my comfortable position many years in the future, what is my experience of reading this book? What it made me realise, with a rather crushing and crashing self-awareness, was the absolute, sudden, understanding of how I would have behaved had I been in that place at that time. I’d have broken. I’d have bent. I’d have been obsequious to the guards, I’d have been a smarmy arse-licker. I’d have made no friends, I’d have refused to break the rules in the camps and thus gotten ill, I’d have trusted in the benevolence of the guards, contrary to all the evidence in front of me. Levi writes about people like this. People who believe in the “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the gate, people who think they’ll be let out early for good behaviour or spared the fucking gas if they’re polite to the man that smashes them round the head whenever he sees them. That’d be me. That’d be me.
And if I wasn’t in there, if I was on the other side, I know with this rising tide of crippling self-awareness, that I’d follow orders, that I’d do what I was told. Because I am weak. I’d have probably been wracked by guilt, and I’d probably have ended up killing myself in remorse, but I find it fucking impossible to imagine I would have been able to stand up straight and refuse to take part in genocide, no matter what I felt about it.
And that’s how it happens, isn’t it? The whole country doesn’t need to be evil, there just need to be enough strong, bullying people to drive the rest into coalescence with the vile intentions.
Primo Levi is not weak in this book, and nor was he weak when he lived the tragedy of its content. He was strong in sharing it, and he was strong in sharing it in such a way that maintains, absolutely, his humanity. He is a man, throughout. No matter how low he sinks, he is never pushed to, moved to, hatred. To have seen humanity at its lowest and to have left that situation with hope… that is what marks Levi out as an important and a great human being.
This is an essential read, If This Is A Man especially.
Not a fun book: important. I don’t know what else to-