If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sincerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; and on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/ 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)

Related reviews

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)

The zip on the briefcase was the interlocking plastic flange type and opened silently. Inside was the folder with the black cover. It was the memorandum… It would contain all the information they could give me, all the names, suspects, dossiers, leads and theories they could cull from the whole of the Bureau files, a complete and exhaustive breakdown of the field. (p.20)

This is a cold-eyed, cold-hearted spy thriller about a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor tracking down former Nazis. The tone of the novel is dictated by his sporadic memories of the unspeakable atrocities carried out by the Germans against their Jewish prisoners. No laughs, no colour, no colleagues or clubs, no music or art or galleries – just a solitary man trudging the streets of Berlin, moving from hotel to hotel, and soon making the horrifying discover that he himself is being hunted by the very organisation he’s trying to expose.

Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor (1920 – 1995) was a British novelist and playwright who wrote prolifically under at least eight different pseudonyms. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote no fewer than 19 spy novels featuring the tough secret agent, Quiller, from Quiller’s début in 1965 to his final appearance in 1996.

The Quiller Memorandum

It is Berlin in the freezing winter, snow everywhere. Quiller isn’t his real name – we don’t find out what that is. He works for ‘the Bureau’ – we don’t really know what that is, either, though he explicitly denies that it’s MI6. He has a set of codewords which is the only way he has of identifying other agents, as well as a set of terminology not usually found in other spy books – ‘tags’ are people tailing him, ‘flushing’ is losing a tag, ‘doubling’ is double crossing.

We learn he was at Dachau concentration camp during the War. He saw Jews being murdered, he saw Nazi guards and officers at work, he has a scar on his leg picked up at Dachau, and somehow he set up a network smuggling Jewish prisoners out of the camp. He has been working undercover for nine months in modern Germany, tracking down ex-Nazis and delivering dossiers about them to the Z Commission which then arrests them and delivers them to the Nazi trials in Hanover.

A contact meets him to explain that one of the biggest names is back in Berlin – Heinrich Zossen, a leading Nazi who he last saw twenty years ago at the edge of an execution pit in Dachau. The contact, Pol, is from the Berlin office of ‘the Bureau’, otherwise known as Berlin Control. Pol gives him a list of other Nazis they’re looking for – a memorandum (the original title of the novel was The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller’s task is to track them down. Rather melodramatically, Pol says he is the sole man standing between two armies poised to go to war.

Quiller has a fortuitous encounter with a girl called Inga who, after inviting him back to her flat for a drink, tells him about her harrowing experiences of being a nine-year-old in Hitler’s bunker which has left her with lots of unresolved ‘issues’. She reveals she used to be a member of Phönix, an underground group of ex-Nazis.

A Jew Quiller knew from the camp, who now works in a germ warfare lab, Sol, contacts Quiller and is on his way to meet him when he is assassinated. Shortly afterwards Quiller is picked up by some of the Phönix group, led by the cold-eyed boss, Oktober. They inject him with various drugs and interrogate him.

(The use of drugs in interrogation reminds me of the similar scene in Len Deighton’s thriller, An Expensive Place To Die, where the unnamed spy narrator is injected with LSD.)

The Nazis want to know the location of Quiller’s superiors, the office of Berlin Control. Quiller knows they will raid it or bomb it, so he resists during a prolonged and hallucinatory scene, until he hears Oktober order him to be shot and dumped in the river. When Quiller comes to, wet, near the river, he realises it was a ploy. And it works because, once he has made it back to a hotel and cleaned up, he goes back to Inga’s flat seeking – as the narrator explains in brutally clinical language – the sexual release of the man who has escaped death. Only to find Oktober there and ready to torture the girl in front of him to get details of the Bureau, its code words and tradecraft etc.

Cold psychology

Though there are occasional flashes of colour, metaphor and simile in the writing, on the whole it is cold-eyed and factual. There is none of the humour of Len Deighton, the stylishness of Ian Fleming, none of the agonising theology of Graham Greene, none of the fast-moving excitement of Alistair MacLean, none of the subtle plot and counter-plot of 1960s John le Carré.

Instead the narrator is detached from everything around him, including himself and his plight, much given to analysing his physical and mental reactions to situations as if from a clinical distance. He liberally uses psychoanalytical terms to analyse his own and other people’s motivations.

I was helpless in a situation of rapidly increasing strain, and however much the ego and superego tried to rationalise and seek comfort or simple acceptance, the id knew I was in bad trouble and was ready to throw the switch and relieve the strain by blacking out. (p.117)

Everything is coolly analysed in this cold, detached manner. Even his return to Inga’s flat Quiller makes cold and detached by describing himself and her as mating animals. To say there is little or no feeling in a book which prides itself on its coldness is an understatement.

It was no good thinking, this is no prelude to love. There would be nothing of love. This was the prelude to something that we would each act out for our own reasons: the simple biological urge to impregnate and be impregnated, the needs of dominance, subjection, identification, a lot of things known and unknown, an act of catharsis to let the fiends come out and perhaps to let others in. The beast with two backs would lord the jungle for a time, then it would die, without knowing why it had lived. (p.108)

Twice Oktober captures Quiller and twice – after the drug interrogation, and after they’ve tortured Inga to try and get him to talk – they let him go without a scratch. Each time Quiller guesses that the Nazis hope he will lead then to Berlin Control – and so he goes wandering round Berlin refusing the temptation to ring his office or to post a message – but this blank and circular repetitiveness eventually stretches credulity. Basically he walks the streets for hours and hours with no purpose except not to contact his base.

A Modesty Blaise-style shootout would have lightened the mood and lifted the tension. And they’re Nazis, for God’s sake. Surely they could extract any the information they wanted from a helpless prisoner pretty damn quickly? The entire premise of the plot – that the Nazis have Quiller in the grip twice but fail to extract the simple information of where his Bureau office is – simply doesn’t convince. Why don’t they look it up in the phone book? Are we to believe that a network of Nazis based in Berlin is not capable of working out where the HQ of a Western spy network is based?

The novel features an elaborate double bluff where the Phönix organisation let Quiller into their base and let him see a big tabletop plan of a Nazi takeover of the new West German army. It is only when they release him that Quiller concludes the whole scene was an elaborate ruse to provoke him into contacting his Control, so they can find out where it is.

And yet, at the end of the novel, it appears that there actually was a Nazi plot to seize control of the army. And that the character Sol, who was shot on his way to meet Quiller, had in fact been working for the Nazis and been tasked with producing vials of fatal germ warfare bugs.

But, unfortunately, by this late stage of the story, I’d stopped caring…

Disconnect

There’s a radical disconnect between the majority of the plot – which consists of Quiller stumbling round Berlin trying to shake off his tails (or ‘tags’ as they’re called in this book) and getting picked up twice by the group and having sex once with Inga – between this very small set of rather dull and silly incidents – and the vastness of the supposed conspiracy to seize the German Army and then all Europe! The disproportion seems quite mad. There is none of the sense of a huge and monstrous conspiracy being slowly unveiled with a masterly sense of pacing which makes, for example, the early thrillers or Robert Harris (Fatherland and Archangel) so breath-takingly exciting. Excitement doesn’t seem to be Hall’s aim at all.

Memo style

The style often descends into memo or Powerpoint format. ‘Situation: Being followed. Decision: ditch tag at next junction.’

Quiller’s favourite phrase is ‘no go’, which is his stock response to umpteen calculations he coldly carries out on the odds of various course of action. ‘No go’ began to really get on my nerves.

Towards the end of the book, the prose reduces further and further to bullet points and lists of issues and actions.

Paramount consideration: protect the Bureau from risk. Worst eventuality: death and no signal sent, my people back where they began. (Who would replace me? Dewhurst? Disregard likelihood) Programme: send signal by direct phone if absolutely certain unobserved. If impossible, wait for the bullet in the neck and try to – (Disregard).

I suppose it’s an interesting experiment in style, and it obviously struck a chord in 1965 as The Quiller Memorandum became a popular bestseller – an exercise in alienation, an essay in a certain kind of masculine psychology, a modish assemblage of contemporary concerns in the era of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. But I found it a difficult and, for the most part, deeply unrewarding read.

Spy boom

The Berlin Memorandum was published in 1965, at the height of the 1960s spy movie boom. The same year saw the release of Thunderball – the decade’s most popular Bond film – as well as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Like them, Memorandum was swiftly turned into a movie, just a year after publication, in 1966, with a sparse repetitive screenplay by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berg. The movie accurately captures the blank and puzzling sense of dislocation of the book. I thought it was dire.

The TV series

Ten years after the Quiller novels began publication they were turned into a 13-part BBC TV series starring Michael Jayston, which transmitted from August to November 1975. I remember watching and loving this TV series, mainly for Jayston’s understated acting style, the same Michael Jayston who played the part of Peter Guillam so beautifully in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Sadly, the series is not on YouTube or available on DVD, though someone has uploaded the funky jazz-fusion 1970s theme tune.


Related links

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap the said VIP. After much shooting and a high-speed road chase, the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high-speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century @ the Royal Academy

It is not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian. (Robert Capa)

This exhibition is being staged to coincide with Hungary holding the presidency of the European Union in 2011. It follows in detail the careers of five major twentieth century photographers born in Hungary, all of whom emigrated and found fame in the West, but brought with them a distinctively Hungarian sensibility.

The five are Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Martin Munkácsi, and the exhibition follows their careers, decade by decade, through the mid-twentieth century – but the exhibition also features many fascinating and striking works by their predecessors and contemporaries in Hungary in a dazzling display of over 200 striking, original and evocative works by over two dozen photographers.

Hungary 1914-39

The exhibition is spread over seven rooms, the first two of which describe the culture of pre-Great War Hungary, the capital, Budapest, famous for its cafes, its booming journalism and for innovative pictorial editing. Newspapers and magazines made increasing use of photographs as the printing technology to reproduce original images a) improved b) spread.

In the late 1920s hand-held cameras using rolls of celluloid film rather than glass plates became more widely available, and allowed for the development of a new genre and profession, that of photo-journalist, able to capture newsworthy events quickly.

These early rooms include works by Angelo and József Pécsi, who incorporated techniques pioneered after the war associated with the art movement of New Objectivity: specifically, experimental lighting, cropping images, unexpected angles. Women photographers were welcomed, including Eva Besnyö. Kata Kálmán pioneered social-documentary photography. There are great photos by Károly Escher and Ferenc Haar.

All that said, Hungary was still – like much of Europe – an overwhelmingly agricultural society. One photographer in particular, Rudolf Balogh explored its rural landscapes and people. He was a leader of the Pictorialist movement, which used soft focus and special printing techniques to raise photography to the level of fine art.

Six Cattle, Hortobágy, 1930 by Rudolf Balogh

Six Cattle, Hortobágy, 1930 by Rudolf Balogh

Fleeing fascism

The Great War led to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungary became an independent country, as its nationalist wing had wished for much of the 19th century – but at the same time lost a huge amount of territory to the other new nations which were carved out in the Versailles settlement, for example the entirely new country of Czechoslovakia, and the now independent country of Poland.

In all it lost a staggering 72% of its territory and 64% of its population. Ethnic Hungarians fled from the territory incorporated in the other new nations. No longer was the country part of a huge, expansive and rich empire; now it was small and crowded and poor.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a right-wing populist backlash and, throughout the 1920s, the government became increasingly fascist, anti-semitic and anti-intellectual. Those who could afford to, fled. These included all five of our photographers.

Moholy-Nagy moved to Germany in 1920 and became a pioneering teacher and designer at the Bauhaus, where he pioneered unconventional perspectives (looking down from the top of buildings, ideally at an angle) and camera-less photograms, where you place objects on photographic film, and turn on a light source, then turn it off – and when you develop the negative it has the shape and outline of whatever object or objects you placed on it. This lends itself to abstract and geometric shapes which fitted well with the Bauhaus aesthetic.

Radio Tower, Berlin 1928 by László Moholy-Nagy

Radio Tower, Berlin 1928 by László Moholy-Nagy

Munkácsi (real name Marton Mermelstein) arrived in Berlin in 1928 where he found work with the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, a pioneer of modern photojournalistic layouts. He described photojournalism as:

seeing within a thousandth of a second the things that indifferent people blindly pass by

André Kertész arrived in Paris in 1925 it was said he was carrying only a camera and a Hungarian flute. He quickly found work at Vu magazine and held his first exhibition in 1927, showcasing his humour and, sometimes Surreal sense of composition.

Satiric Dancer (1926) by André Kertész

Satiric Dancer (1926) by André Kertész

Brassaï (pseudonym of Gyula Halász) arrived in Paris in 1924. He was working as a journalist when André Kertész introduced him to photography which he took to like a duck to water. He quickly showed himself to have an acute eye, was taken up by the Parisian intelligentsia, and his name was made by his photographic book, Paris de nuit (1932). Henry Miller called him ‘the eye of Paris’. He spent the rest of his life in the city.

Original edition of Paris de Nuit, photos by Brassaï

Original edition of Paris de Nuit, photos by Brassaï

New York

Martin Munkácsi arrived in New York in 1934 where he got a job with leading fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar. His experience as a sports photographer and his ability to capture dynamic movement revolutionised fashion photography. Commissioned to illustrate Harper’s ‘Palm Beach’ bathing suit editorial, Munkácsi had model Lucille Brokaw run toward the camera while he photographed. This was the first instance of a fashion model being photographed in motion.

The First Fashion Photo for Harper's Bazaar (Lucile Brokaw) 1933 by Martin Munkacsi

The First Fashion Photo for Harper’s Bazaar (Lucile Brokaw) 1933 by Martin Munkacsi

He was soon at the top of a profession he had virtually invented, and his style went on to inspire up-and-coming photographers like Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber. Richard Avedon said of him:

He brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art. Today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkácsi’s babies, his heirs.

Munkácsi’s influence in introducing ‘spontaneous’ outdoor, action photography into the stuffy world of fashion, and his influence on Avedon in particular, is made crystal clear in this juxtaposition.

Left: Martin Munkácsi (1934) Right: Homage to Munkácsi by Richard Avedon (1957)

Left: Martin Munkácsi (1934) Right: Homage to Munkácsi by Richard Avedon (1957)

When the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy fled, first to London, and then on to Chicago where he became Director of the New Bauhaus in 1937, although his job left him little time for photography.

Robert Capa, war photographer

Robert Capa (real name Endre Ernö Friedmann) moved to Paris in 1933. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the editor of Vu magazine commissioned the 25-year-old Capa to go and photograph the conflict. His ability to get right to the front and capture moments of actual conflict made his reputation. When Picture Post published his Spanish photos, he was dubbed ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’. He would go on to photograph conflict in the Chinese war against Japan, in World War Two, specifically when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, in the post-war Soviet Union, in Israel at its founding in 1948, and then in the IndoChina War where he was killed, stepping on a landmine, when he was only 40. Amazing life. Amazing legacy.

Robert Capa's D-Day photos, 6 June 1944

Robert Capa’s D-Day photos, 6 June 1944

In 1947 he was awarded the Freedom Medal, presented by Dwight Eisenhower. In the same year he set up the photography agency Magnum, along with fellow snappers Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger.

Post-war

The final room traces Hungary’s sorry history from the 1940s to the 1980s. Under its military dictator, Admiral Horthy, Hungary entered the war on 26 June 1941 by declaring war on the Soviet Union, and six months later on the Allies. Once it became clear the Allies would win, Hungary tried to leave the war in 1943, and was occupied by German forces in March 1944, who installed a fascist Arrow Cross party in government and promptly started rounding up Hungary’s Jews and sending them to the death camps.

This was overthrown in 1944 by an interim government which declared war on Germany – now very much retreating before Soviet forces – and signed an armistice with the Allies in January 1945. In February 1946 Hungary was declared a republic, but two years later the Hungarian Workers Party was helped into power by the Soviet occupying forces, and imposed a copy of Stalin’s repressive communist regime.

After Stalin died in March 1953, a political thaw of sorts slowly spread through the eastern Bloc which led in October 1956 to a popular insurrection to overthrow the communist government, which the ‘liberal’ leader of the day, Imre Nagy, decided to support. Bad decision. Tanks from Russia and all the other communist bloc states invaded Hungary, crushed the insurrection.

Hungarian flag, with a hole where the communist emblem had been cut out - symbol of the 1956 revolution. Photographer unknown

Hungarian flag, with a hole where the communist emblem had been cut out – symbol of the 1956 revolution. Photographer unknown

Some 26,000 rebels were brought before the Hungarian courts, 22,000 were sentenced and imprisoned, 13,000 interned, and some 300 executed. These included Prime Minister Imre Nagy, executed after a secret trial in 1958. Approximately 200,000 fled Hungary as refugees.

The new, hard-line pro-Soviet communist government remained in power, supported by Russian tanks, until 1989.

The last couple of rooms show photographs of these dramatic events – war, revolution, insurrection, repression – and then document the decline of photography as an independent, experimental activity under harsh communist rule. Socialist Realism, heroic photos of happy peasants toiling in the fields, or workers smiling in steel factories, were what was required.

A little more individualism crept in during the 1970s, and then the trickle of information and styles from the West turned into a river with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and then a flood which, in 1989, was to tear down the barbed wire fencing the country off from the West, the overthrow of the communist authorities, free democratic elections, and the joining of the European Union.

Wedding by László Fejes (1965)

Wedding by László Fejes (1965)

This photo by László Fejes won a World Press Photo prize in 1965 but the authorities disapproved because it showed all too clearly the bullet marks from the 1956 revolution, with the result that Fejes was banned from publishing photographs for years.


Related links

Press reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: