Book Review: Primo Levi “If This is a Man” and “The Truce”.

If This is a Man was first published in the 1950s and accounts for Levi’s capture and subsequent internment in a labour camp that was part of the wider Auschwitz complex. The Truce deals with the camp’s liberation and his subsequent protracted journey back home to Turin, and was published in the early 60s.

Although technically they are two different books, they’re more often than not published together since they deal with two halves of the same story. I would not recommend that you did what I did with the book, which was read If This is a Man, and then blithely think ‘I’ll get round to reading part two in a little while’. In my case a little while was nineteen years.

There is very little I wish to say about the book’s (and I’m referring to them as a single work now) qualities. It is a work about a very serious topic by a serious (and seriously good) writer. In the insightful appendix published at the end of the book, in which Levi gives lengthy responses to typical readers’ questions, he famously states that he sought to write a book from the point of view of a single witness. Therefore he does not give  detailed background about the whys and wherefores of the Nazis’ death and labour camps. He sticks to what he himself saw, experienced, felt and thought. The result is a work which is short of generalities and moralising. It does carry great moral weight, however, and in my opinion this comes from Levi’s eye for detail and his aim to stand as a witness to what he saw.

It goes without saying that If This is a Man goes a long way to helping the reader understand how hard it was to exist and survive in the Nazi labour camps (could it even be called ‘living’?). It is a remorseless book in the sense that in chapter after chapter it outlines the pitilessly harsh time the rank and file prisoners had of it, being forced to cary out forced labour for a Government that considered them to be less than human.

Yet this does not make for a book that is difficult to read. Emotionally I admit that I found it difficult to take. But as for the actual reading of it, Levi’s skill lies in not browbeating the reader, or in laying out horrific scenes in emotive terms, but in calmly reporting what he saw. In this sense it is an examination of what his time in the camp was like, and I read his words as I read or listen to anyone who takes the time to carefully explain the story or knowledge that they have to impart. It is this calm tone that make those moments when he does express anguish, disbelief and anger all the more affecting.

If This is a Man ends with a twist of fate that in the end saved Levi’s life.

The Truce deals with the liberation of Levi’s camp and his slow route back to Italy. In a way it is a counterpoint to If This is a Man. If the latter dealt with a kind of living hell, then the former accounts for his time spent in a form of Soviet bureaucratic limbo between Spring 1945 and 1946 when he eventually got home to Turin. His travails and travels during this time were many and various, and he has some colourful tales to tell of the many people he met along the way. One important thing this book conveys is the sense of chaos, liberation, frenzy and free-for-all that existed in Europe during that immediate post-war period, which sat alongside the utter destitution and broken war-weariness that 6 years of hatred and destruction had wrought.  As a consequence some of the people and things he writes about are genuinely bizarre, and I found myself laughing out loud at several points.

As briefly mentioned, the appendix to the book, in which Levi explains at length his motivation for writing the memoir, and his own self-defined role as a survivor, is also well worth reading.

So in summary, while the subject matter of this book is harrowing, Levi’s skill as a writer is to clarify things and to present the facts as he saw them. The result is a book that enables the reader to reflect more rationally on the barbarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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