Primo Levi: You Must Read It
This week I spoke about Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man at a book club, meeting at the home of Andrew and Renata Kaldor. Always an honour to speak about Levi, which I’ve done twice this year at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
In my 2008 book, My Reading Life, I argued If This Is a Man was the most important book of the 20th century.
I praised it in these terms because the last century was dominated by totalitarian dictatorships, each of which murdered millions of people. Levi’s book, in my opinion is the best of the books that give testimony of these horrors. This young Italian chemist who survived a year in Auschwitz set out to give an objective account of a concentration camp. Concentration camps are a defining invention of the 20th century.
The book provides individual pen pictures of prisoners and some of their tormentors. It examines why some prisoners survived and others perished. It is written in a gentle, magical style that charms and persuades all readers.
Levi survived because of a chain of chance events: he was a chemist and got recruited to work at a neighbouring synthetic rubber plant. That gave him the capacity to trade for extra food. A bowl of soup was infected with scarlet fever and, sick, he came to be in the camp hospital when the Auschwitz complex was evacuated. Those who left in the death march vanished in the snow. Levi and a small number of comrades survived to be liberated by the Russian army.
I won’t go on, except to insist you read If This Is a Man and its accompanying volume, The Truce, which tells the story of Levi’s odyssey through devastated Europe and his return to home in Turin.