Saturday, May 03, 2008

If This Is a Man / The Truce, by Primo Levi

This book I recently 'liberated' from the shelves of an opportunity shop in Brunswick for $2.00. It seemed a crime to have it sitting there in the dank, musky atmosphere of an op shop, collecting dust with a lot of other crappy titles.

I must confess: I tried to read If This Is a Man many, many years ago, and put it down after a few pages. For some reason, it didn't hold my interest. Inexplicable, I know.

Alas, so many years on I seem ready for this extraordinary book.

Looking at the publishing date on the inside of the book it shows 1958, but this is the date that it was translated.

Primo Levi actually wrote it straight after the war. His prime aim was to 'bear witness' to what had happened. It was of utmost importance that people know the truth of what happened.

Published in 1947, the book was pretty much a flop, but was revived years later and is now studied in school and considered a classic.

On the basis of its revived fortunes Primo Levi decided to write a sequel, The Truce, which relays Levi's long journey home from Auschwitz.

The two short books are now commonly published together, as is the case with my Abacus edition. As the introduction says, together the books form a kind of descent into hell, and a resurrection from hell.

Of the two books, I found the first book to be the strongest.

It has a strangely serene, wise, gentle, philosophical tone that you don't expect. It's almost like the author is writing some Proustian novel. In some sections of the book you detect a wry, gentle sort of humour.

This is extraordinary to me for two reasons. One, that it was written so quickly after Levi had experienced the horrors of the camps. Two, the very nature of what he had experienced called for extreme anger.

Yet as he notes in the afterward for the two books, where he tries to answer the most frequently asked questions to his books and experiences as a prisoner of Auschwitz, he was always of a gentle disposition. Hate did not come easy to Levi, even after his experiences.

Hence the book has a surreally serene atmosphere. Bodies pile up, death surrounds everything, cruelty is everywhere, is indeed necessary even for inmates to survive, yet Levi keeps a bemused tone at the Nazi's self-deluding grandeur and obsession with categorising everything, as if this will allow them to control everything.

Of course nothing can stop the madness of their leader, and the Russians eventual arrival to liberate the camps.

If This Is a Man ends on a bit of a cliff hanger, and Levi takes up his pen again in 1963 to write The Truce, a book that deals with Levi's post camp struggle for survival and his long trip home to Turin in Italy.

The most moving part of this book is the end where he describes his recurring dream, where he imagines that he is back at Auschwitz, and that the liberation by the Russians is all an illusion. The Nazis are the reality, hell is normality, and the life of a free man is an hallucination.

As mentioned earlier, the book comes with an afterward where Levi answers common questions. This section is fascinating, as Levi answers the questions that we, as readers, most commonly think of. Why didn't the Jews resist? How much did the German population know?

The most fascinating insight in this afterward is in the survivors' attitude to their experiences.

Those who had no political affiliation, or understanding, found it hardest to deal with their experiences. Whereas those who belonged to some political movement, or had some idea of how politics worked, were better able to continue on with their lives undisturbed.

For this latter group, they could at least say their experiences had had meaning.
I look forward to reading other books by Primo Levi.

1 comment:

Amelia said...

hello, i was just wondering if you knew about Melbourne's collaborative op shopping blog 'I op therefore I am'

there are links there to maps and addresses of Melbourne's op shops. let me know if you are interested in joining .

regards, Amelia