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.

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42 thoughts on “If This is a Man: The Truce by Primo Levi

  1. Beautifully written post as usual but I’m afraid I can’t bear reading anymore books about WWII. It really shakes me up just a bit too much. As a matter of fact I have the last read of my book club on the 9th of June is Unbroken, another WWII book of 400 or so pages. The sun is shining for the moment in Normandy and I want to keep it that way. Loved the post anyway! 🙂

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    • Thanks Didi, I understand, I have noticed quite a few are reading war books this month, appropriate for May I guess, but one is enough for me too, I can’t read anything else for now, still absorbing it all.

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    • It is a very honest and humane reflection on what he experienced, incredible really and at the end he answers the most common and oft repeated questions people put to him from all the book tours he gave, those final pages are a real gift as well, it really does make you believe he was saved to share his story with people.

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  2. Thank you for your insight in this work.

    What he lived through, no amount of words or film can do justice to the experience. It’s a malignant version of Pi, no end because there are no answers to explain how we could embrace nightmare and implement it as reality. Oswiecim is one name what makes my blood turn to ice, yet I love it’s defiance, its overriding of an attempt to change, a symbol of resistance seventy years later.

    The sucky part of it all is… we have yet to learn the lessons necessary to prevent it from walking amongst us again.

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    • I don’t think it is possible to learn from the past, its too passive, I think actively learning to identify potential perpetrators of these kind of crimes is more likely to be preventative, unfortunately war is exactly what aids the development of that kind of cult of the personality.

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  3. Great post and review. I sometimes find it so difficult to read books about the Holocaust, probably because it’s so close to my history. But at the same time, I know it’s so important to do so. This one sounds very important.

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    • It is immensely difficult, I agree Leah, it stays with us – but I do believe I understand some important things about the differences between people as a result of this book that are important, there may not be much we can do, but being better observers and understanding how people function and adapt in order to survive, can promote compassion and empathy as well as a healthy instinct for being wary.

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  4. Claire, I’m angry with you! Primo Levi is a writer whose writing style dosen’t work for me (shocking, I know) and so have abandoned… now you’re making me put this book on my list 😉

    The excerpt and the review are most convincing. I’ll give it a go.

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    • Aorry Samir, this was my first Primo Levi but the name was already familiar, which tells me I had probably picked something his up and shied away in the past – chemistry inspires but confounds me. However, like you, I was carried away by the words of someone else and totally inpsired to read this, I knew I had to just cease that moment and when the book appeared the very next day – well I had to didn’t I?

      Just be prepared to give it some time, its not a book to devour, but I reread so much of it as I was reading because he really does have an almost poetic but poignant style, one I am in awe of, especially when he said it is unlikely he would have written ANY book, if he hadn’t had this experience. That’s some inspiration.

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  5. I usually struggle to read Holocaust books, but Primo Levi’s immense humanity and generosity of spirit saw me through this one. Thank you for the reminder.

    A well annotated book is a wonderful thing I think. I still wish I’d persuaded my English teacher to let me keep a book of Keats’ poetry from twenty five years ago.

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  6. Claire,

    1) You should post more often.

    2) ALL of my books are dog-eared and scribble-filled and well-worn. Even my few signed, limited special editions are be-covered with notes. Books are tactile, physical things, and life’s too short to keep them pristine and perfect and un-read-looking. Marginalia are beautiful.

    3) I would like to “borrow” (read: shamelessly plagiarise) your phrase ‘perverse hierarchy’. 🙂

    4) Ditto your verb phrase ‘slow-read it’. 🙂

    5) Awesome review.

    Tomcat.

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    • Well No.1 makes me laugh, there’s been a drought over your way hasn’t there? I like the sound of your books, do you keep them or like my ZIMERA pass them on? Could there be a metaphor in that name?

      You are starting to sound like me Tomcat with all those encouraging words, and I am flattered that you found one of my phrases worthy to note, keep any of them you like, I learn new phrases from you every review.

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      • I keep them, not for anything as grandiose as posterity, but I’d like to accrue a library of my own much scrawled-upon books. I have indulgent fantasies of some descendent of mine one day sitting among my books and reading all of the notes I scribbled decades ago, maybe adding their own, too.

        Also, nobody will take such messy/”ruined” books off me… 😉
        Tc.

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  7. A great review – I really can’t wait to read this book (after finding a copy). Also, you should see my French Harry Potter book – I made a note of every translation I looked up and it is now basically a dog-eared specific dictionary!

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    • I love the sound of that Harry Potter graffittied reference book, in fact I’m enjoying hearing about all these books that have this elelement of the reader scribbled within, I feel almost privileged that the previous owner of my copy let it go, I’m not sure I will be passing it on. No wonder the highlight and notes feature in the kindle is such a hit!

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  8. Claire,

    I have a (pristine) copy of If This is a Man (retitled Survival in Auschwitz), which I’ve always intended to read. Now I plan on doing so soon. I’ll have to make time for it this year.

    Thank you for such a moving review.

    nymith

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  9. Firstly thank you for the reference back to my own thoughts on the Primo Levi book – I’m so glad that you seem to have got as much from the experience of reading this book as I know I did. Your review is beautifully written, capturing the very essence of how this book is in one sense gentle and unassuming and yet as powerful as anything I think any of us could ever read. Above all you summed up exactly how I felt myself on reaching the end of this book – somehow from all that happened to him, the human spirit within Primo Levi still survived and knowing that made me feel better for having had the privilege to read his words.

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  10. Thank you for the thoughtful review and for reading the book! This and other books like need to keep being read as the Holocaust recedes further and further into the past. like one of your readers above I recently read “Unbroken” and found parts of it hard going emotionally. This one sounds similar to “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl. It would be interesting to do a comparison of the two. I’m sure and I will eventually summon the courage to read this one. I’ll probably go in search of it today.

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  13. 03:30 am, can’t sleep and feel lost and overwhelmed with worries about my daily life. Glad I had this book on my night table so I could forget my petty problems and realize what a good life I have.

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    • That vulnerable haunting hour when everything seems so much more overwhelming than it is at 8am when we are up and back in charge of our lives. Makes me wonder how all those in the camps survived their nights, maybe because even those haunting wee hours were not as bad as what they had to endure during the day. Hope the sun shines for you today Nancy, light a candle tonight to keep the demons away. 🙂

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  17. I had to read this review again….
    Today it was difficult to watch the footage of the concentration camp on TV during the 70th memorial Auschwitz. This is till a wonderful review even after so many years…

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    • It is an exceptional read and destined to become a very important work I am sure. I haven’t seen anything on the TV, but saw Col’s timely post and other references on twitter. It is interesting that while Primo Levi is able to write about the suffering and cruelty, he retains his love of humanity and can keep the reader engaged, whereas when reading recently the novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the way it was written for me was unsupportable and thus its message, supposed to be a tribute to the author’s father who suffered in a POW camp, completely lost on me, left with a despicable fear and disgust of humanity.

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  18. Ravensbruck by Germine Tillion ( French female resistance fighter) was the book that has lingered in my mind. She described the life in the women’s camps. #ReadingWomen. Her goal was to survive in order to expose what went on there. Women were work slaves, used in medical experiments and abused. It was a very ‘ up close and personal ‘ story. Powerful.

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    • I don’t know of that one, but sounds like another good volume to add to the list, like Vera Brittain the female experience and perspective on war and suffering under dictatorship add a different necessary element. Too little of it out there in my view.

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