A Survivor's Tale
Primo Levi A decade after his death, Primo Levi remains one of our century's essential voices
Writer and chemist, survivor and witness, Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919. Like most Italian Jews of his generation, Levi was assimilated to the hilt: "Religion," he later recalled, "did not count for much in my family." In 1938, however, his Judaism became a sudden and serious liability. That year, Mussolini's government enacted a series of anti-Semitic regulations that outlawed mixed marriages, expelled Jews from the universities, and forbade them even to own certain kinds of property.
Despite the so-called racial laws, Levi managed to complete his degree in chemistry at the University of Turin in 1941. But he had difficulty finding work. And two years later, when the Germans invaded northern Italy, Levi fled to the mountains with a pearl-handled pistol, joining an ineffectual band of partisans. "I was twenty-four," he would recall, "with little wisdom, no experience, and a decided tendency--encouraged by the life of segregation forced on me for the previous four years by the racial laws--to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms...." Captured at once by a troop of Fascist militia, Levi soon found himself crossing the Brenner Pass in a cattle car, en route to a location whose name had not yet acquired its terrible, latter-day resonance: Auschwitz.
Out of the 650 Italian Jews in his "shipment," Levi was one of the 20 who left the camps alive. He attributed his survival to luck, to his skills as a chemist (which the Germans utilized in the synthetic-rubber factory attached to the camp), and to the furtive care packages he received from an interned Italian bricklayer. He also had the paradoxical good luck to be stricken with scarlet fever just as the Germans began to evacuate the Auschwitz complex. Left behind for dead, he survived, and was liberated along with a handful of other disease-ridden inmates in January 1945.
Levi returned to Turin, married, and resumed his career as chemist. [Survival In Auschwitz] Yet he felt driven to record his wartime ordeal, and in spare time he composed Survival In Auschwitz. Fantastically enough, his memoir was rejected by several publishers, and when a small press brought it out in 1947, the book disappeared without a trace. Not until 1958, when it was reissued by Einaudi, did Survival In Auschwitz find a wide audience.
Today, five decades after its initial appearance, it continues to astonish. Written in a prose of tactful precision, shirking metaphysics, Levi's account documents the mundane life of the camp, setting out the author's experiences with a modest, appalling dailiness. Even the number tattooed on his arm--which functioned as an impromptu meal ticket--is registered as merely one more fact of life. "Several days passed," Levi writes, "and not a few cuffs and punches, before we became used to showing our number promptly enough not to disorder the daily operation of food-distribution; weeks and months were needed to learn its sound in the German language. And for many days, while the habits of freedom still led me to look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name ironically appeared instead, its number tattooed in bluish characters under the skin."
The late-breaking success of his first book inspired Levi to write another. This was The Reawakening, in which he recounted his long, meandering journey home through the chaos of liberated Europe. Where its predecessor was low-keyed, grave, and exact, this sequel almost sings with comedy, liveliness, an immeasurable gratitude at the mere fact of survival. And yet it concludes with Levi's most fearful dream, one he would share with many survivors: a persistent nightmare that this liberation would dissolve and return him to Auschwitz.
Slowly, Levi's literary reputation grew. He contributed a column to Turin's newspaper La Stampa, and published a series of science-fictional and philosophical vignettes that were later collected in The Sixth Day and The Mirror Maker. In 1977 he retired from chemistry to write full-time, and won a worldwide following during the next decade with the English translation of The Periodic Table.
In the latter book, Levi truly united his dual occupations, using the elements of Mendeleyev's Periodic Table as jumping-off points for autobiographical episodes. Sometimes the element in question plays an overt role: "Nickel," for example, finds Levi extracting traces of that metal from a "slow avalanche of dust and gravel" at an Italian asbestos plant. But often the role is a metaphorical one--an inert gas like argon reminds Levi of nothing so much as his own family, with its tendency to stay on the sidelines and avoid any potentially explosive interactions. Nobody has written more poetically about matter itself, with its "sly passivity, ancient as the All and portentously rich in deceptions, as solemn and subtle as the Sphinx." Nor has anybody made the gap between the "two cultures"--between art and science--seem so irrelevant, or even nonexistent.
All of Levi's books were marked with a wry, heightened sanity--he seemed always to have emerged from the ordeal of the camps miraculously intact, almost devoid of bitterness. Still, Auschwitz had left Levi with indelible scars (some of which grew more visible in his last book, The Drowned and the Saved). As his friend and fellow survivor Jean Amery once wrote: "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured." Beneath the buoyancy and reason of Levi's books underlay a similar sense of a wound that simply could not be healed. On April 11, 1987, after a period of prolonged depression, Levi toppled over the railing of a stairwell in his Turin home, and died of his injuries. His (apparent) suicide was greeted by many with disbelief, as if it somehow invalidated the serenity found in his work. But the books, of course, remain, and all of Levi's hard-won knowledge and lucidity and gentle wit will survive him, as long as there are readers with the least grain of curiosity about what it means to be human. --James Marcus
Primo Levi [Wikipedia]
The Periodic Table