If This is a Man: The Truce by Primo Levi

I only had to read the first sentence of a Scotsman in Exile’s blog post of this book to put aside what I was reading and start this almost immediately; his review entitled And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up… continues its first line:

…These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi.

I found a copy on the second-hand shelf of our local bookshop the very next day, a copy I now own that would have to be the most annotated, scribbled in, colour highlighted, dog-eared, pored over volume that I possess (thanks to the previous owner ZIMERI). When I was a student, we studied ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’; how fortunate that today’s students are reading and studying this equally important work.

I’m not sure if I so much as read the book as followed closely in the footsteps of Primo Levi as he recounted the events that unfolded during his journey and time in the concentration camp, due to the way he chooses to express himself, which can best be summarised in his own words:

I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Thus we absorb only that which he personally experienced and perceive not just the daily routine, the trivial yet so essential implements of his survival, the relentless toil and the near brokenness, but we view also the different strata of man in that direst of circumstances, a kind of perverse hierarchy.

Primo Levi was a young man of 24 years, a chemist and part of a partisan band hoping to join the Resistance movement when captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. A few weeks later, all Jews in the camp were told they would be leaving for an unknown destination, revealed to be the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, part of Auschwitz.

650 people made the journey that day; on arrival, the majority were ‘swallowed by the night’ and 125 sent to the camps. Of those, only three made the return journey to Italy after liberation, Primo Levi being one of them.

He was fortunate to return and discover his family intact; we in turn are fortunate that he returned and wrote these two books to be read together, one the descent into darkness, the other the journey back towards an altered but real luminosity.

All I can really say is that if you haven’t read it, add it to your list and find the time one day to slow-read it, Primo Levi was an important chronicler of a difficult period in history and a man who was interested in and able to put into words his observations of humanity in all its capacity, something we all the better for knowing.