I can't remember how old I was when I read Primo Levi's If This is a Man, and The Truce (two interlinked books in one volume), but it wasn't my youth and impressionability which gave it such power.
It was the sheer, unmitigated truth of it; the sense of what a book could achieve in terms of expanding one's own knowledge and understanding at a single sitting. Because you do read this in a single sitting: it is a terrible exposure of man's capacity for harm and annihilation on an unprecedented scale, a narrative of appalling suspense, and re-reading it now, the impact is just as great as it ever was. Primo Levi, then a young Italian chemist from Turin, was incarcerated in the Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 and was one of the three out of the 125 people consigned with him to survive not only a year of the killing regime, but also the long, insanely complicated, starvation-filled route home across Europe, described in The Truce. Twenty months of dehumanising hell and murder, without, even now, a logical explanation.
It is a story of collective madness, wickedness, unbelievable stupidity, treachery and also of human ingenuity, spirit, kindness, stubbornness and the random nature of luck combined with enterprise. This is more than reportage: it is a reliving of horror in muscular, lyrical prose. You can taste it, feel it, recoil and advance towards it. At the end, it is life-affirming. Because it expands horizons, rather than eclipses them: it reinforces the desire to live well and honestly. It inspires kindness.
This book offers no explanations: it offers experience and the will to live. It is human nature writ large and small. It makes you question everything. Levi does not credit his own survival with courage, but with luck. In the Lager, survival beyond a month of brutality was not the intended result: they were all intended to die. Survival could only be achieved by bartering starvation rations for scraps of clothing, stealing cardboard for shoes, learning to evade, finding someone who spoke the same language. Hierarchies developed; special skills were necessary to live.
Levi knows he would not have survived without his ability to communicate and his specialist knowledge which allowed him to work indoors for a crucial few weeks. At the time of the Russian liberation, he was seriously ill in the infirmary, and thus left to starve by the retreating German commandants. In the long route back, knowledge was still vital to avoid starvation. Levi lovingly describes the colourful entrepreneurs of various nationalities who made it possible to live in chaos. He includes the capacity for joy amid despair, the acceptance of fate, but never quite. Humour, humility and a sense of wonder never leave him. There are few writers who have left such a legacy. A necessary book.
Frances Fyfield's 'Cold to the Touch' is published by Sphere
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