Primo Levi dismissed the “fashionable, frivolous and irritating” belief in the essential dumbness of the individual: the theory that, marooned in our own minds, we emit only the most malformed, misdirected messages. It “originates in mental laziness and points to it; certainly it encourages it .… To refuse to communicate is a failing.” This comes in I sommersi ei salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saved1989), which takes for its epigraph a quatrain from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Since then, at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns, / And till my ghastly tale is told / This heart within me burns.” Levi elsewhere compared himself to the Mariner more explicitly, conscious of his public role as a Holocaust witness even as he practised quietly for forty years as a chemist.
For Levi, making oneself understood was an imperative, and Marco Belpoliti’s Primo Levi: An identikit devotes more than 600 pages to our understanding of the man, his work and its context. Belpoliti discovered Levi in the 1970s through a schoolteacher, who had himself been deported by the Germans for political dissent. Levi was not at the time considered a great writer; moreover, Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man1959) and La tregua (1963; The Truce, 1965) were somehow read less as accounts of the Jewish extermination and more as documents on the anti-Fascists, resistance fighters, defectors and general undesirables who had the bad luck to fall into Nazi hands. “The Jewish question was certainly present”, Belpoliti writes, “but neither I nor my school mates saw it as the most important element of the work … The Shoah was not a dominant paradigm between the 1950s and the 1970s.”
Only sheer complacency – complacency of the kind that Levi laid at the feet of the German people – could explain such a misbegotten reading of If This Is a Man. There was no confusing the Jews with the Aryan internees at Monowitz, the third sub-camp of Auschwitz: the former had a red and yellow star sewn into their clothes, while green and red triangles respectively marked out criminal and political prisoners. Only Jewish arrivals had their left forearms tattooed with an identifying number, a violence that was “gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence”. Levi was Haftling (prisoner) 174517; like all the registration numbers, it enciphered his nationality and approximate date of arrival. In the camp, it was his name.
Belpoliti argues that Levi’s year in Monowitz-Auschwitz informs his entire corpus, but the book does not focus on the “witness literature” to the exclusion of all else. It has much to say about Levi the chemist, and even Levi the humorist – The Truce, which starts from the Russian liberation, differs from its predecessor in having characters both farcical and maybe slightly fantastical, such as a composer manqué who rues some inadvertent and career-crashing plagiarism. Belpoliti unpacks each of Levi’s books into “lemmas”, the themes that he considers vital to the work in question: on the novel La chiave a stella (1978; The Wrench, 1987) he gives us mini-essays on “Work”, “Hands”, “Charles Darwin” and “Claude Lévi-Strauss”. And, true to the dictionary definition of the English subtitle, “An identikit”, he reproduces a few black-and-white photographs of Levi from childhood to adulthood (he died at the age of sixty-seven), all glossed with some light art criticism. The standout picture is “Portrait with a personal computer” (1986), in which a silhouetted profile hunches behind a 1980s Apple Macintosh, scrutinizing a poem. Levi’s essay “Can Poetry Get Along with the Computer?” concluded that, yes, “poetry is compatible with the computer, but has little to gain from it and nothing to fear”.
Poetry is one thing, but in an age of spellcheck we might expect some basic prose etiquette. Levi’s view of computers is quoted twice, just one instance of the repetition that riddles Belpoliti’s book. His gravitas also suffers from a poor English translation, which was completed either in a rush or on the cheap, with a bizarre interdict on the personal pronoun: “On the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Levi gave an interview for the television news. In the same period Levi appeared countless times in conferences and public speeches, which Levi commented on in the interview. Sessi has observed that Levi was not completely up to date on current historical research.” This is not the only time that the book reads like a wad of lecture notes.
Porous proofreading is also responsible for haphazard italics and countless typos: “shirt stories” appears to have been copied-and-pasted from p162 to the contents page. With a sense of sad irony, the reader learns of Levi’s delight at the standards of his German translator, Heinz Riedt – “Perhaps you are the person I have been hoping to meet for years”, he wrote. But the problems go deeper, back to the original, for “An identikit” has an identity crisis. It is not a biography, though sometimes it comes close to hagiography. Nor is it an encyclopedia, however exhaustive it may be. Yet Belpoliti’s “lemmas” are encyclopedic in notion, if not in practice; Certainly, an encyclopedia would have been the more natural context for the sixty-five-page bestiary that enumerates every mention of every animal in Levi’s oeuvre. Belpoliti’s often speculative voice pushes these entries into the realms of the banal: the termite hill, in If This Is a Man“conjures the idea of overcrowding in a collective space”, and so on.
A more restrained compendium would have been truer to the spirit of Levi, both as scientist and writer. It is not as if his empirical, dispassionate style is lost on Belpoliti, who quotes from the Appendix to If This Is a Man:
I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness … 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 performing his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.
True to his word, Levi reserved judgment on many who inhabited the moral “grey area” that the Lager created. He refused to condemn the Sonderkommandos, the “Special Squads” of Jews who were forced to operate the gas chambers for a few months, before themselves being gassed by their replacements. But even an apparently cordial chat makes for tough reading. Midway through If This Is a ManLevi attends an oral exam with Doktor Pannwitz, who is recruiting for a rubber manufacturing plant: as a chemistry graduate from Turin, this could be Haftling 174517’s shot at salvation. Their eyes meet with a look that is “not between two men…. The brain which governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said: ‘This something in front of me belongs to a species which it is obviously opportune to suppress’. Yet from the very first question – of Levi’s origins – the Doktor addresses the skeletal, shaven-headed prisoner with the polite Sie: “Wo sind Sie geboren?”
Such formal observance is the flipside to what Levi called the “degraded, often satanically ironic jargon of the concentration camps”. The Drowned and the Saved argues that where violence is done to people, it is always done to language, too: thus the prisoners did not essen (eat) their daily hunk of bread but fressen it, a verb reserved for animals. Verbal grotesqueries may have been the least of the prisoner’s hopes in a world where only bare communication mattered, however pidginized and tortured, but those of us at liberty have no excuse for garbling our messages and Levi knew it. Here he is, reflecting on Paul Celan: “We must answer for what we write, word for word, and ensure that every word hits its target.”
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