Primo Levi in English
by Ruth K. Angress
Primo Levi. The Periodic Table, trans. from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. 233 pages.
Primo Levi. If Not Now, When?, trans. by William Weaver. New York: Summit Books, 1985. 349 pages.
In the immediate postwar period, Primo Levi recalls, it was not easy for a young chemist to make a living. An attempt of his to collect and distill chicken droppings for a lipstick maker ended in defeat, and he did not fare better when the object of pursuit was the excrement of python snakes. There are a number of such anecdotes in The Periodic Table, stories that amusingly illustrate the chemist in "confrontation with Mother-Matter, our hostile mother" (p. 38). How, the author laments, was he going to get out of his financial troubles, "I the discouraged author of a book which seemed good to me but which nobody read?" (p. 183). What book? Levi is referring to his now famous Se Questo ~ un uomo, translated into English in the British edition as If This Is a Man, and in the later American edition as Survival in Auschwitz, with the unnecessary subtitle "The Nazi Assault on Humanity," as if the reader were likely to miss the point.
With today's tendency to mythify and mystify the Holocaust, Levi's mention of his first book in the semi-comic context of the episode from which I have just quoted, would strike some Americans as sacrilegious if it came from anyone other than him. Yet it demon strates an enduring quality of Levi's work, his reliability as a witness, which includes a sense of the circumstances in which remembering takes place. The book about genocide was not written in a vacuum but during the scramble of the postwar era. Levi is a master at showing how minor contingencies impinge on major concerns and jostle our priorities. It is thus not accidental that his humorous account of a chemist's tribulations includes a casual reference to a book about concentration camps, and one of the best books at that.
Since the two new books stand in some ways in the shadow of Levi's earlier two "books of testimony," as they are sometimes called, it may be well to look back on the work to which he owes his fame. Today, when the facts about Auschwitz have been accumulated, summarized, and made easily available to the general reader, so that the details of deprivation and mass death are no longer new, there are a few survivors' accounts that stand out and have even gained in stature. Among them is Borowski's ferocious collection of short stories, A World of Stone, which appears in this country under the unfortunate and sensational title, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (intended by Borowski for one story only), and which like no other book I know unravels the fabric of traditional Western values; Elie Wiesel's Night, the account of an inexperienced religious boy's encounter with absolute evil and his loss of faith and family, the work that by now has left its mark on a whole generation of young Jews, particularly in America; and Levi's If This Is a Man.
Levi came to Auschwitz as a fully formed adult, with a Ph.D. in chemistry, a humanistic education, a rationalistic outlook (a Jew was your neighbor who didn't go to mass), a brief spell with the Italian partisans, and a deep love of his homeland, the last a feeling that German, Austrian, and Eastern European Jews could not be said to share so unequivocally.
While Levi's Auschwitz book preserves details of deprivation with minute exactitude, and thus conveys to the reader the physical torment of exposure, hunger, nakedness, cold, and thirst, he also focuses with uncommon intensity on the destruction of human dignity. And he highlights the opposite of that destruction, the attempt to preserve one's identity. He lingers over those moments of reprieve when it was possible to stop and breathe and think. Such moments occur when he is sick in Ka-Be, the infirmary, and they also occur in contact with fellow prisoners and in their gestures of fellowship, or when he is homesick or when he sees himself through German eyes as someone who has become a lesser person, an Untermensch. There are vignettes that deserve to become a part of our Western consciousness, as epitomizing humanity in the Holocaust: the boy Schlome who, when he heard that Levi had a mother who was in hiding back in Italy, embraced Levi "with his serious and gentle face of a child, which welcomed me on the threshold of the house of the dead"1; and Schmulek, who was at first contemptuous when Levi refused to believe in the existence of gas chambers and then left him his spoon and knife when he himself went to the gas; or Levi's own telling of a lie to comfort Kraus, a doomed man, the lie being that he had dreamed Kraus was visiting him after the war.
The uniqueness of Levi's Auschwitz book is probably due to the coexistence of his "two lives" and their commensurate qualities, that of the empirical scientist with his penchant for closely, even obsessively closely observed realities, and the life of the imagination which made him write purely fanciful stories even before his imprisonment. (Two of these early attempts are included in The Periodic Table and are called "Lead" and "Mercury.") It is the trained empirical observer who in the Auschwitz book provides a blow- by-blow description of forced labor as torture, that is, labor that surpasses the laborer's physical endurance and thereby dehumanizes and reduces him temporarily. This account stands side by side with a recollection of a brief "free" euphoric moment, where remembered lines from Dante cause his spirit to soar momentarily and remind him and a friend that they are sentient and rational beings. Thus the struggle between physical limitations on the one hand and the almost impossible and yet attainable self-assertion of the mind on the other, is a central organizing principle of If This Is a Man as well as a dominant theme. (The original title indicates this.) The book is, of course, not a testimony of the triumph of mind over matter: no Auschwitz book can or should be that. But it is a book that tells with precision how the death and survival of people differ from that of animals.
In his notes to the Italian edition for high schools of Se Questo 6 un uomo (Torino, 1973), Levi writes that it took him only a few months after the war to compose these memoirs. Several big publishing houses refused the manuscript, and it was finally accepted by a small house, which published a mere 2,500 copies and shortly after went bankrupt. The book fell into oblivion. "In that harsh period after the war," Levi notes laconically in the school edition, "people had little desire to be reminded of the painful times that were hardly over." In 1958 the Auschwitz book was republished, and ever since it has been attracting a growing audience in several countries and languages. Thus it was written for a relatively indifferent world and has grown into one where the Holocaust has become a field with specialists, groupies, fans, and commercial exploiters.
It was years before Primo Levi wrote a follow-up, his story of the aftermath. In La tregua, translated as The Reawakening or The Truce, he describes a forced journey through Eastern Europe and eventually Russia, where the liberators had taken him instead of allowing him to go directly home. It is not a self-pitying account. The reader may feel that Levi and his fellow prisoners had deserved better from the postwar world, but Levi has no axe to grind.
The Truce recounts how the survivors who came spilling out of the camps coped with their immediate past and the chaotic present. It bears testimony to the joy in life of those first postwar months that was so oddly mixed with an awareness of the enormity of what lay behind the survivors as the true dimensions of the destruction became clear. It is a mixture of relief and aghastness that every European who was alive and conscious then must surely remember. That atmosphere of an innocent-guilty joy and a lasting horror was a fusion that may explain why, together with a need to remember and record, there was also a need to turn away and leave behind, and why the early books about the Holocaust found so little echo among readers, even among survivors. I know of no one who has captured that air of hope and exhaustion and misgiving as Levi has in his The Truce through sheer attentiveness to detail and a patient description of the flood of humanity that was on the road. He makes no attempt to have his account fit any categories, such as conventional preconceptions about recovery from traumatic experiences. He describes people who crawled out of the camps and wanted to eat, have sex, move freely, or sometimes, as in his own case, read books, be lazy, talk to friends. This second story, the story of the first months of relative liberty, is vital in shaping the outlook that informs the two more recent books.
The Periodic Table, published in Italy in 1975, is loosely organized in chronological order around certain events in the author's life, but it does not amount to an autobiography. The narrator explains to a fellow chemist that he is writing a book that will "convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavor of our trade, which is only a particular instance, a more strenuous version of the business of living . . . " (p. 203). Each of its short episodes and short stories carries the name of a chemical element, thus stressing the connecting theme of the chemist as author or the author as chemist.
One might say that The Periodic Table is about the virtues of impurity. The concept is alternately used in a chemical and in a human sense. It crops up in the laboratory as well as in racial theories. The story "Zinc" takes place at an Italian university in Fascist times and revolves around a substance that can be made to react only when it is not pure.
The young chemist praises the impure substance because, like dissension and diversity, impurities are anathema to Fascism but needed for life to continue. He relates his Jewishness to the grain of salt or mustard that causes zinc to react. " . . . there was much talk about purity, and I had begun to be proud of being impure" (p. 35).
"Phosphorus" takes place in the early forties and shows the narrator after he had received his doctorate in chemistry but couldn't find work because he was Jewish. He was therefore grateful when he was hired at a good salary by a firm doing research on diabetes. The hiring process, which was "no- nonsense, all-business," and therefore somewhat short on the usual civilities, prompts Levi to comment, "with a Jew, at a time of the Defense of the Race, one could be polite, one could even help him, and even boast (cautiously) about having helped him, but it was not advisable to have human relations with him, nor to compromise oneself too deeply, so as not to be forced later to offer understanding or compassion" (p. 110). Since Levi had diabetic relatives, his employer saw the additional advantage "to have at his disposal an authentic diabetic, of a basically human race, on whom he could test certain of his ideas and preparations" (p. 111). In "Phosphorus" Levi conveys with a few words (the modifier "basically" with "human race") and a well chosen detail (Jewish and Gentile vulnerability to the same diseases) the perniciousness of racism in its relatively milder stages. Yet his employer is only at a few removes from the Dr. Pannwitz of the Auschwitz book in whose presence Levi learned what it means to be an Untermensch.
Dr. Levi is asked to acquaint himself with the ideas of a certain Professor Kerrn, a Third-Reich scientist who believed that phosphorus was the key to a cure of diabetes and who wrote "with the arrogance of someone who knows that his statements will not be disputed. He wrote, indeed harangued, like a possessed prophet, as though the metabolism of glucose, in the diabetic and the healthy person, had been revealed to him by Jehovah on Sinai or, rather, by Wotan on Valhalla" (p. 119). Of course the cause of medicine is not advanced by these theories or the research based on it. As so often with Levi, the story apparently proceeds on two disparate levels, the political on the one hand and a near-romantic entanglement of the narrator and one of his fellow workers on the other, in a lab that has the atmosphere of a harmless witch's kitchen where no serious scientific work gets done and where unmanageable rabbits provide comic relief. Yet the bad science is not entirely comic, its setting in 1942 providing an ominous sense of foreboding. The relative inhumanity of the initial hiring process is counterbalanced by the humanity of the workers and their mutual attraction, which ultimately still leaves them each going his own way. It is a period of waiting, not of grace, in the semi-prison of the rigidity of fascist science, under the sign of the element contained in "will-o'-the-wisps, putrid flames, fleeing before the wayfarer" (p. 120).
There are a number of Holocaust-related stories in The Periodic Table, but only one that actually takes place in Auschwitz. It is called "Cerium," a tale of a stroke of ingenuity that helped the author and his friend Alberto, known to readers of If This Is a Man, to survive a little longer. Here Levi reaffirms his praise of impurity as a metaphysical stance, a kind of religion of chemistry: God does not like incorruptible things (like polyethylene). Therefore he has packaged liquids "with cellular membranes, eggshells, the multiple peel of oranges, and our own skins, because after all we too are liquids" (p. 141). The story is told in part with the wry humor of the passage I have just quoted and partly with the documentary directness that distinguishes the two books of testimony. Like an early story, "Sulfur," it affirms the uses of human skill and thoughtfulness, but at the same time it shows their futility in extreme circumstances, a conflict that knows no resolution. For Primo survives but "Alberto left on foot with the majority of the prisoners when the front drew near: the Germans made them walk for days and nights in the snow and freezing cold, slaughtering all those who could not go on; then they loaded them on open freight cars, which transported the few survivors to a new chapter of slavery, Buchenwald and Mauthausen. Not more than a fourth of those who left survived the march" (p. 146). Levi manages to put these two passages, the light and the heavy, within the same few pages without jarring the reader's sensitivities. On the contrary: the contrast helps raise our consciousness about "the strong and bitter flavor of the business of living."
"Vanadium" is about a conflict of memories. "Varnish," the story begins, "is an unstable substance by definition," because at some point "it must turn from a liquid into a solid" (p. 211). The same can be said of memories, though Levi says it by implication only: at some point they congeal. The story shows what can go wrong in both processes.
The vanadium of the title is the ingredient that is supposed to cure a faulty shipment of resin from Germany. The autobiographical narrator, in his capacity as industrial chemist, but with his "pathologically precise memories" of Auschwitz intact, spots a certain spelling error in a letter from his supplier, a firm that is not incidentally a postwar offshoot of the once notorious and now defunct 1. G. Farben, one of the Reich's main employers of slave labor. The mistake occurs in a chemical term and resembles an error of pronunciation by a certain member of the master race whom Levi remembered as a kind of civilian supervisor at the Buna works in 1944-1945.
Levi writes that he had dreamed of a confrontation with a German who had known Auschwitz from the other side, though his motive for wanting such a meeting was not revenge. "I am not the Count of Montecristo." The literary image of the swashbuckling nineteenthcentury hero, the fictional incarnation of the wronged man seeking revenge, strikes at the heart of sentimentalities about the Holocaust as contrasted with the gnawing necessity to make sense of an event for which the history and psychology books have so far only fragmentary explanations. Not revenge: "Only to reestablish the right proportions, and to say, 'Well?"' (p. 215).
The man Levi had found to confront was not the "perfect" German, because at the time of their first meeting this Dr. Muller had shown some awareness that he was dealing with another human being, and a fairly obvious ignorance of the full extent of what went on in Auschwitz. He had even helped Levi obtain a precious item, a pair of shoes (p. 222). For a meaningful confrontation a more criminally active and aware German would have been better. Yet this one was available and might do. So Levi asked by letter whether Muller remembered their previous encounter, and enclosed a copy of the German translation of If This Is a Man.
We know that the book Muller received was not just any personal memoir which happened to contain a scene that he would recognize, that is, the lab at Buna; rather, he was made to read one of the most powerful books written about concentration camps. Levi had sent his man a bombshell, and the predictable effect was an explosion. Dr. Miffler was suddenly more eager to meet Dr. Levi than Levi was to meet Muller. For Levi realized from Muller's reaction that this man could not help him understand what had happened. The answer was both sincere and insincere, a mixture that unfolds before us as in a frustrating lab experiment.
Muller turns out to be a prime example of faulty memory, the sentimentalization produced by an internal time machine that allowed him to revisit the past and retouch it like snapshots to fit the fashions and platitudes of the present. For example, Muller claimed to have had a relationship amounting almost to a friendship with Levi in Auschwitz and to have had scientific and philosophical conversations with him. He had meditated on "precious values" and their destruction. Levi comments that the memory of such conversations could only arise from wishful thinking and adds that perhaps this was something "he told a lot of people and did not realize I was the one person in the world who could not believe it" (p. 220). The comment suggests that insincerities can go as deep as any heartfelt emotion' a witches' brew of self-righteousness and self-deception, and points to the subtle ways in which ego-strengthening lies become transformed into convictions.
Levi gives Muller the benefit of every conceivable doubt. He cautiously concedes that it is possible, though implausible, that Muller really did not know of the mass murder that was taking place next door at Birkenau. I find it even harder than Levi to believe that anyone in authority at the Buna works should not have known the camp's open secret. But Levi shrewdly recalls the human ability to turn away from what one doesn't want to know and to perceive selectively. Yet he cringes when a phrase of his, used to honor two of his fellow prisoners ("that the weapons of the night were blunted" against them), becomes a source of comfort to Dr. Muller (p. 219). He is right: the self- serving context has turned a moving tribute into kitsch.
Levi now realized that the man wanted something of him and that that something was absolution. Muller read into Levi's book a willingness to forgive his enemies; he saw in it "an overcoming of Judaism" in favor of the higher values of Christianity, in a phrase which, since it predates Nazism, he may not even have recognized as anti-Jewish. Levi, with his characteristic wry irony, meant to respond that "He did me an undeserved honor in attributing to me the virtue of loving my enemies: no . . . I did not feel like loving him" (p. 222). He no longer felt like meeting him either, for the confrontation he had had in mind for the 20 or so intervening years could not be expected from this man of stock phrases and cliches and half-hearted lies, this "typically gray human specimen" (p. 221).
But before he could write back, Dr. Miffler telephoned. The conversation between the Italian Jew and the German ex-Nazi that ensued suffered from severe communication problems, for Levi's German had become rusty since he was forced to practice it in Auschwitz. The language barrier helps prevent him from making his feelings of distaste known. He reluctantly agrees to meet the German. Besides, there had been that pair of shoes (p. 222). The scene is not without black humor.
Dr. Miffler dies before the end of the story, and the narrator does not have to keep his promise. Thus, the story's end maintains the inconclusiveness that is its subject.
In this confrontation, or rather non-confrontation, between victim and victimizer, Levi has written one of the most meaningful postHolocaust, survivor, stories that I know. By insisting on the varnish problem and forcing the reader to pay attention to the vicissitudes of a career in industrial chemistry, Levi prevents us from perceiving (and sentimentalizing) the narrator as a disembodied memory of the Holocaust. To be sure, he is a Jew who is haunted by the past, but in the present he is a responsible professional struggling with a specific technical problem, which runs its course, like the ongoing business correspondence conducted by the same parties who are privately unearthing a deadly past. The story thus deals with a series of flaws, beginning with the production flaw in the varnish, progressing to the flaw of perception signaled as a typing error but really an error of pronunciation by one of the administrators of hell. And these last two turn into flaws of memory and are ultimately moral deficiencies in the postwar world.
In the preface to the German edition of the Auschwitz book, Levi published part of a letter to his German translator in which he says:
When I think of my fife and the various goals I have set for myself, I recognize only one as a steady aim, and that is to bear witness and let the German people hear my voice and to answer [a number of Germans who are mentioned in the book and who inflicted indignities or cruelties on Levi and others].... Yet I can't say that I understand the Germans. And what one can't understand is a painful vacuum, a thorn in the flesh, an urge that cries out for relief.2
He hoped for an echo which did not come. There were no significant reviews, though the book sold, and the few letters from readers were partly cliche- ridden and partly expressive of the correspondents' own incapacity to understand what had happened. The story "Vanadium" mirrors this apparently futile attempt to penetrate the mindset of the former persecutors.
In the preface to the second German edition of the Auschwitz book Levi adds, significantly for his latest novel, that the horrors of the Third Reich may well foreshadow an even greater catastrophe, threatening all of mankind, that can only be banished through a mastery of the past.
If Now Now When? is a novel about Jewish partisans in Russia during World War 11. Its chronological divisions, from July 1943 to August 1945, which serve as chapter headings, create a sense of the progress of the war beyond the characters' individual fates. It begins with two Jewish Russian soldiers behind the German lines. One of them, Mendel the watchmender and the moralist of the story, is haunted by the memory of his murdered wife. The other, Leonid, is an orphan who never had a family, the ultimate displaced person. For a while these two live in a community of Jewish refugees who collaborate with Russian partisans, and there Mendel feels as if he were "perhaps inside the walls of Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, or perhaps in Noah's ark" (p. 75), in other words endangered but at home. All the Jewish characters live with memories of a violently broken past and with aspirations for a peaceful future, all are uprooted and all intent on surviving the war and fighting the Germans. Mendel the moralist is matched by the far simpler Arie who sums up his creed: "And for me there's only one way: shoot the Germans as long as there are any left, and then go to the land of Israel and plant trees" (p. 231). They are secular Jews, and there is little room for religious observances. "'Do you eat rabbit?... a Gentile asks them. "'The Jews in Samarkand won't eat it: for them it's like pork.' 'We're special Jews,' Leonid said, 'hungry Jews"' (p. 36). A chess game early on signals their penchant toward reflection, their propensity to discuss their actions, which distinguishes them from their Gentile counterparts.
Jewish resistance, of course, is far more palatable to the collective Jewish ego than that much discussed and often invoked phenomenon of so-called Jewish passivity. Certainly passivity is the implicit contrasting background of this novel. Yet Levi does not make things easy for the reader. In If Not Now, When? the heroic deeds are as necessary as they are dubious. The partisans can achieve no more than "three lines in the history books," as they say more than once. That is, they want to enter the collective memory with a record, however minor, that will establish that there had indeed been Jewish partisans. Their dilemma:
They only understand force.... The Germans began to understand only after Stalingrad. So that's why it's important for there to be Jewish partisans, and Jews in the Red Army. It's important, but it's also horrible; only by killing a German can I manage to persuade the other Germans that I'm a man. And yet we have a law that says: "thou shalt not kill" (p. 111).
But that Jews can fight is not something that has to be proved anymore. The first chapter of If This Is a Man celebrates the resignation of the condemned, the patience of praying Jews awaiting their end and of women preparing food for their children who will die. "If you and your child were going to be killed tomorrow, would you not give him to eat today?" the author asks. In If Not Now, When? Levi describes the opposite possibility, without, of course, invalidating the first. Neither provides an answer to the question of how one should live in the face of death. In painting a different situation Levi, who himself has been both a partisan and an inmate of a death camp, once more addresses the question to which there is no clear answer.
It is the grey zones in this novel that are important, among them the uneasy alliances between the various groups, Polish and Russian Gentiles and Polish and Russian Jews. For example, Levi carefully spells out the degree of victimization of Poles by both Russians and Germans, so that at times we have a sense of the persecuted persecuting each other. Mistrust between Gentiles and Jews continues, abates, flares up again. The non-Jewish partisans are sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, and when they are the former the reader is moved and thinks a better world is coming, only to be taken aback by the next fluctuation in Jewish-Christian relations. The pattern of acceptance and rejection is problematic and many-sided, but in the end there is enough rejection so that most of the Jews we encounter and who survive decide to emigrate to Israel/Palestine. The Jews proudly refer to the Warsaw ghetto uprising (p. 65), but when the Russian army finally overtakes them, there is a flat denial of the role of the Jews: whoever heard of Jewish partisans?
These are not the only grey zones. The Jews' first act of sabotage, derailing a train, is only a half-success. Another action, involving the killing of German officers, has the repercussion of costing all the lives in a Baptist village. After the war, when one of their number is killed by an unknown German without any provocation, the former partisans gun down ten Germans in retaliation, without investigating who was responsible, and they feel the better for it. This is perhaps their most successful and morally, of course, their most dubious exploit.
The last part of If Not Now When?, dealing with the partisans after the war, picks up the mood and the images of The Truce. But the novel gives more play to the somberness and the repercussions of the war in the psyches of those who had survived it, as, for example, in the suicide of former concentration camp inmates. As in The Truce Levi creates a sense of Europe in 1945, first conquered and, after May, at peace. The book pays homage to the Russia that Levi experienced on the whole as positive during the months he was forced to spend there after the war. One would expect that these postwar sections would be anti-climactic, but in reality they are among the most vivid. Levi is still a master at recalling the chaos and the hope and new disappointments of 1945, the difficulties of getting out of one country and into another and at the same time the new freedom, the inside feel of Europe sorting itself out after its worst catastrophe.
The novel has its weaknesses. In spite of the considerable complexity in moral thinking that underlies this, like Levi's other books, there are also simplicities and dry stretches. The episodic exploits of the partisans are repetitious and sometimes tiring. All the women characters are cardboard. One is a partisan who is also feminist and doubles as the archetypal whore of Jericho. Near the end another one gives birth to a boy (the infant's sex is never in doubt from conception onward), a rather trite device to signal hope, since children are born round the clock the world over without reducing the rate of human hostility. Yet at least Levi relativizes the symbolic baby by the date of birth, 7 August 1945, and the news of the dropping of the atom bomb.
It seems to me that this is a book that allows for very different reader responses. One can consider all the partisans' actions worthwhile and see them as a vindication of Jewish courage and the will to resist. In that case the passages dealing with early partisan action are reminiscent of Werfel's prewar The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a clairvoyant historical novel about Armenian resistance to the Turks, clairvoyant because its theme was genocide. Both are serious works of fiction that yet smack of the excitement of boys' adventure books. One can mix that response with a partial sense of the futility of the partisans' endeavor. The Jewish characters are drawn for sympathy and identification and yet, I think, it is also possible to read the novel so pessimistically that the upbeat tenor of escape novels all but disappears. For at the core of this account are those who were massacred-even though, and perhaps because, Levi explicitly states that he will not describe massacres in this book (p. 98). But take the liquidation of the Baptist village I mentioned above. The villagers are loaded onto a wagon: "Ukrainians or Lithuanians, taking armfuls of shovels from a shed and loading them into a wagon ... followed by the SS, laughing and smoking.... There wasn't a soul in Novoselki, or in all the occupied territory, who didn't know the meaning of shovels" (p. 95). With this sinister reference to a harmless farm and garden implement Levi has introduced the forbidden subject quite effectively. (Incidentally, the verb "to shovel ... .. schaufeln," is also a key word in Paul Celan's celebrated "Fugue of Death," though it is usually translated with the innocuous "to dig.") And there is the massacre of the Jews of Novoselki, the people of Noah's ark, who are killed with few exceptions after they have withstood the internal twin enemies of despair and disease and the "pitiless snow" that descended from the sky instead of manna (p. 96). "Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna?" One of the band, a young boy, remembers SS men, hardly older than himself, clubbing his family to death: "The boys' faces weren't ferocious; on the contrary, they seemed to be having fun" (p. 183). And already much earlier (p. 110) there had been a reference to the massacre in Mendel's village. Against this background the vision of a peaceful postwar life doesn't fall smoothly into place. The novel ends in a country that is a way station for the emigrants, Italy, not Palestine. Arrival in the land of their destination, while not denied to the characters, is denied to the reader. It is a tale of the diaspora and begins and ends there. Moreover, its last word is Hiroshima.
Primo Levi is the author of several books that have not yet been translated into English, including tales of science fiction and fantasy. Although these began to appear in book form later than the autobiographical works, some of the stories were written simultaneously or earlier.4 The Periodic Table, too, contains some stories that Levi published earlier under different titles. "Titanium" (a story of a little girl who believes herself banished into a magic circle by a house painter) appeared in 1947 and "Sulfur," about a watchman who prevents a boiler from exploding, in 1950.
These dates are of interest because they raise the question whether or not some of the fantastic tales should be seen in context with his autobiographical work. Levi himself seems unsure about this. He writes that he published his early ventures into science fiction and fantasy under a pseudonym because he felt squeamish about imposing them on the public under a name associated with two concentration camp books. He felt that it would have been akin to commercial fraud to offer to this serious public a collection of playful entertainments ("un volume de racconti-scherzo"), a bit like selling wine in oil bottles. Yet he came to feel that a continuity, a bridge, did exist between these two aspects of his production, that the fantasies like the documentaries illuminate the unravelling of the fabric of our society, that the Lager was the most enormous of the nightmares arising from that sleep of reason which is also the subject of the fantastic tales.5
Some of Levi's fantastic stories deal with memory. For example, one is about a man who shores up the past by collecting odors. The idea that the past has a smell may have been inspired by Proust, but Levi has made it his own, because with him it is so clearly a chemist's fantasy about memory. There is another story about a Golem who was made to operate under one law only, but since the letters of that law are the elements of all other laws as well, his robot's mind contained the entire Jewish legal code, and he became destructive when he was ordered to work on the Sabbath: a rather charming tale that turns into a fable about the oneness of the moral world through written records. The motto of The Periodic Table is a saying that Levi quotes in Yiddish: "Ibergekumene tsores is gut tsu dertseylin" (Troubles overcome are good to tell). Levi, a secular Jew, tells us in many variations that to be a Jew is to remember, that it is a way of relating to the past. Jewishness depends on stories and on historyfor those who don't carry our past in their minds have been successfully assimilated, while those who do remember remain Jews no matter what their religion or politics. The hallmark of Primo Levi's work is the integrity of his memory.
1. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York, 1961), p. 27; below pp. 47 and 122.
2. Ist das ein Mensch? Erinnerungen an Auschwitz (Frankfurt, 1979), p. 9. My translation.
3. lbid., p. 182.
4. Storie naturali in 1966, Vizio di forma in 1971. See Giovanni Tesio, "Primo Levi," Belfagor 34 (1979): 670. Tesio is informative on the publication history of Levi's works and has an interesting discussion on Levi as a man "of two cultures."
5. Storie naturali (Torino, 1966), back cover. My paraphrase and translation.
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