One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper. (p.17)

It is the start of 1951 (p.36), some prisoners are discussing what will happen now that China has joined the Korean War, will there be a world war? (p.124) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, 40 years old (p.39) is prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team at an unnamed forced labour camp somewhere in Siberia, where the daytime temperature is -27 degrees C.

Daily life is about survival, decent boots, making the most of the pitiful thin fish soup and magara porridge, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to wangle your way out of the physically most draining labour and into something cushy like cleaning the floor of the guards’ room (nice and warm), trying to wangle a puff of someone’s cigarette butt, a fragment of extra food.

Shukhov has woken up feeling feverish so goes along to the camp doctor but is too late; only two prisoners a day are let off work and the two slots are already taken. Back in the barrack he and the rest of the 104th are told to dress, line up and march to the camp gates where they are thoroughly searched, before marching off to the building site of a new power station, rags and muffles pulled to cover as much of their faces as possible from the biting wind.

Solzhenitsyn emphasises that Shukhov is an ordinary guy, ‘a man of timid nature [who] knew no way of standing up for his rights’ (p.24). He is not educated, not an intellectual, thus the poem which the medical assistant Vdovushkin is writing ‘is beyond Shukhov’s ken’ (p.22) and he doesn’t understand the two men in the building site office who are discussing the merits of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

When Shukhov gets out, in two years time, he hopes to be a stove-setter or a carpenter or a tinker (p.39). He is meant to be everyman or, in this case, everyzek (zek being an abbreviation for the Russian for prisoner). He is a Christian, is surprised anyone isn’t, but right at the end tells the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha, that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. And he seems to half believe the folk myth that each month God creates a new moon. Why? Because he crumbles the old one up to make stars. (p.94) In his village they call the moon ‘the wolf’s sun’ (p.134).

Shukhov hasn’t been back to his home village of Temgenovo (p.84) or seen his wife since 1941 when he marched off to war. Ten years absence. During the war, in 1942, his unit was surrounded and captured by Germans. After a few days five of them managed to escape back to Russian lines. Three were shot dead by sentries, and the authorities considered Shukhov and his comrade must be spies. So they were convicted of treason and given ten years (pp.58-59).

He met team leader Tiurin in his previous camp, at Ust-Izhma (which is where he made the hand-made spoon which he still uses and hides carefully in his boot). Shukhov spent seven years in the far north, logging.

Well, a zek’s belly can stand anything. Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (p.72)

The simple format of a day in the life allows Solzhenitsyn to describe a surprising variety of people, and the work they have to do, and the world of dodges and scams the zeks pull on each other and the authorities. Anything for extra food. Anything to be near a fire or – God be praised – inside out of the sub-zero cold

He describes the crucial relationship between a team leader and his men, in fact the complex web of networks a prisoner finds himself in. He casts an experienced eye on those around him, from the 16-year-old Ukrainian Gopchick, who is quick and savvy and will survive, to the recently arrived naval captain who still thinks the world owes him a favour, is not adjusting quickly enough to the necessary posture of complete submission.

They are marched out of the camp to the power station and, by the afternoon, have got stoves going to heat up the sand enough to make mortar and actually get so into their work, priding themselves on working as a team to send up mortar and bricks to the third story which they’re building, that they’re late finishing.

At going home time, just one zek who’s dropped off somewhere means the entire contingent of 463 zeks have to wait stamping their feet as the sun disappears and the stars come out. After a lot of pushing and shoving, they’re allowed through the wire perimeter fence and march back to camp. While standing around Shukhov spots a bit of hacksaw blade lying in the snow and quickly palms it. There’s a tense moment when each zek is searched before entering the main camp, but he successfully smuggles it through in his mitten and slips it in a crack in his bunk. Later he’ll find a stone, whet the blade, and make it into a cobbler’s knife. He earns a little bit of cash making slippers for zeks with money from rags and waste bits of wood.

Back inside the main camp, Shukhov carries out a number of complicated manoeuvres. He offers to stand in the cold queue for parcels for a posh zek named Tsezar, who turns up late and takes the place Shukhov has kept. In exchange Tsezar says Shukhov can have his portion of skilly for dinner. Graphic description of the mob of zeks trying to get into the hot filthy canteen, where the harassed cook serves out skilly which is glorified dishwater with a few fragments of rotten fish or vegetables.

Fine details of how you have to scrounge a decent tray to collect the bowls for your team. There are 24 in the 104th. Shukhov and Gopchik pinch trays, and bring the bowls to a section of bench where his ‘brothers’ are sitting. His body rejoices as the tepid skilly slips down into his belly, and he takes the old zek’s precaution of sucking the fish, its bones and gills and eyes, slowly and methodically. Calories in every slurp.

Then over to Hut 7 to swap a few hard-earned roubles for a tiny glassful of excellent tobacco from the Lett. Back to his hut to listen to Tsezar excitedly open his parcel (after it had been opened and rifled through by the guards, of course), and discuss it with the naval captain.

But the latter irritated Lieutenant Volkovoi, the Security Chief, at roll call. Now he is taken away for ten days in an isolation cell. Skilly only every other day, the walls covered with ice. Not everyone survives.

Then they’re turfed out of the huts for a final head-count, all five hundred of them under the frosty moon, with more swearing from the guards, and the hut-commander beating the slowcoaches. Shukhov gives Tsezar good advice about hiding the contents of the parcel and makes sure he is first back to protect its hiding place for him. Good to have someone like Tsezar as a friend.

He climbs up to his bunk, belly full of two helpings of the wretched skilly, Tzesar’s ration of bread hidden in his jacket to be enjoyed next morning. He lies on the hard mattress, no sheets, head on the pillow full of wood shavings, feet in the sleeves of his jacket to stop them freezing, grubby blanket pulled over him, and his coat laid on top of that.

It has been a good day.

People

  • the old artist with a grey beard who touches up the prisoners’ numbers
  • Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin, team leader of the 104th
  • Alyosha the Baptist, who’s hidden a copied-out manuscript of the New Testament
  • Buinovsky the ex-naval captain, only been in the camp three months, has a lot to learn, imprisoned because a british admiral he was seconded to during the war sent him a thank you gift, which led to his trial and imprisonment
  • Der, B 731, a convict-supervisor on the power station building site
  • Eino, an Estonian on the 104h
  • The camp security officer, known as ‘the Father Confessor’
  • Fetiukov, a snivelling sneak and hanger-on in the 104th
  • Gopchik, Ukrainian lad of 16
  • ‘One and a half’ Ivan, a thin weedy camp guard
  • Khromoi, the mess orderly
  • Kilgas the Lett in Hut 7, always has good tobacco
  • Kolya Vdovushkin, medical assistant to the camp doctor, who is writing a long poem
  • Panteleyev, member of the 104th
  • Pavlo, deputy of the 104th, with his rolling West Ukrainian accent
  • Stepan Grigorych, the camp doctor
  • Senka, deaf member of the 104th, he’d survived Buchenwald
  • Shkuropatenko B219, a supervisor at the building site
  • The Tartar, lean violent disciplinarian guard
  • Tsezar, team-mate of Shukhov’s who receives impressive parcels from home
  • Lieutenant Volkovoi, Security Chief, who used to use a thick bullwhip on the prisoners
  • S 123, a stringy old man serving a 25 year sentence

Demotic style

The translation by Ralph Parker dates from 1963. English writers, even up to the present day, especially if they went to private school, still think it is acceptable to write about ‘one’ doing this or that, and break the back of sentences in order to avoid ending a sentence with a participle (preferring to write ‘the man about whom I told you’ rather than what every normal person would say, ‘the man I told you about’).

Presumably Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is pretty demotic, capturing the everyday speech of the zeks, the swearing of the camp guards, and the thoughts of the profoundly uneducated Shukhov – and all this has forced Parker to be more demotic than, maybe, his natural English would have permitted.

Thus it would be ludicrous to have prison camp inmates saying ‘one does’ and one does not’ all the time and so, very sensibly, Parker uses the phrasing most ordinary people would use, using ‘you’, you have to look sharp, you have to keep your wits about you, you have to know when to bend to authority etc.

And he uses ‘fuck’ sparingly, for example when Solzhenitsyn conveys the attitude of the zeks to the guards and petty officials who lord it over them. Fuck ’em, is the attitude. I imagine camp inmates swore all the time. Maybe this was Solzhenitsyn’s own restraint, and maybe he knew what would bear publication in 1962. The subject matter was controversial enough, best not to offend the literary sensibilities of the editors and writers he was trying to recruit to his cause.

Proverbs

Instead of learned quotations, the poor and illiterate have folk wisdom and proverbs. Shukhov’s mind is full of them.

  • You’ve only to show a whip to a beaten dog. 53
  • Thrift is better than riches 71
  • A man with two trades to his name can easily learn another ten.
  • Hasty work is scamped work. 89
  • A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing. 96
  • The quickest louse is always first to be caught in the comb. 131

In The Great Gatsby F.Scott Fitzgerald makes the simple observation that there are only two kinds of people, the sick and the well.

In Denisovich Solzhenitsyn divides people into two further categories – the warm and the freezing.

Also: the hungry and the full. As in Primo Levi’s accounts of Auschwitz, concentration camp inmates may not always be cold, but they are always hungry, permanently surviving on the verge of malnutrition.


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Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Fiction

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


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Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

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 (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

Related reviews

The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour in the inferno – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

The Truce by Primo Levi (1963)

It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections [for the gas chamber], and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence. (p.188)

Primo Levi was 24, a chemistry student from Turin, when he was shipped off to Auschwitz concentration camp in February 1944. Here he managed to survive for 11 months, until the Russians liberated the camp in February 1945, and eventually made it back to Turin, where he wrote his classic account of life and death in the camp, If This Is A Man. Initially published by a tiny publisher, which promptly went bankrupt, If This Is A Man didn’t make much impression until it was taken up by a larger concern and republished in 1958, and was translated into English the next year. Second time around it was a phenomenal success and prompted Levi to write a sequel, an account of what happened to him between the liberation and his final return to Turin. The Truce is that book, published in 1963, translated 1965.

The two books are so closely tied together in chronology, subject matter and theme that they are generally published together in one volume, like the 1987 Abacus paperback edition I refer to here.

The detour

The Truce is longer than If This Is A Man and, somewhat inevitably, a much more appealing and life-affirming read.

The key fact it records is that, instead of being shipped south and west back to Italy, through a series of accidents and what we come to think of as characteristic Russian chaos, Levi and his fellow Italian survivors of Auschwitz end up being shipped first north and then a long way east, deep into Russia – before things are finally sorted out and they return on a long and equally circuitous route via Romania and Hungary, back to Italy.

This means that, without wanting to, Levi ends up witnessing some of the chaos, the epic destruction, and the vast wanderings of millions of displaced persons, which characterised the post war months (and years). Levi and his comrades are just a handful of the what, according to Keith Lowe’s revelatory book Savage Continent, were an estimated 40 million displaced persons at the end of the war. They travel by train, on foot, in carts, across a landscape of devastation and confusion, of physical, economic and moral bankruptcy.

In those days and in those parts, soon after the front had passed by, a high wind was blowing over the face of the earth; the world around us seemed to have returned to primeval Chaos, and was swarming with scalene, defective, abnormal human specimens; each of them bestirred himself, with blind or deliberate movements, in anxious search of his own place, of his own sphere. (p.208)

Although, on a literal level, a straightforward account of what happened, this odyssey plays to Levi’s strengths – already in evidence in If This Is A Man

  • of creating pungent pen portraits of the enormous cast of heroes and villains, shysters and charlatans, victims and conquerors, thieves and innocents, which swarmed across the face of ruined Europe
  • and of sensing behind each individual, the laws of human nature, the deeper meanings, bodied forth by their stories

Levi’s people

In If This Is A Man an entire chapter is devoted to his attempts to remember perfectly his favourite canto from Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante poem notoriously functions on a host of levels, describing the poet’s personal, actual, physical journey down into hell and then back up through purgatory, to heaven – an obvious parallel to Levi’s descent into hell and then slow, healing return to ‘normality’. In his journey Dante meets a large number of real people, historical contemporaries as well as actual friends and family, who have died and find themselves in hell, purgatory or heaven. But these real people also embody spiritual and philosophical truths.

Though nowhere near as schematic – and devoid of any overt religious belief – Levi’s books nonetheless echo Dante’s technique of closely observing real actual people – but simultaneously seeing through them the broader ‘laws’ of human nature, finding in every individual an aspect of the ‘truth’, or – if there is no one Grand Truth – of making the reader see the truths of the human animal.

Reading the two books together gives you a sense of the kaleidoscopic variety of people and lives and strategies and ways of being in the world. There is a Shakespearean richness in the sheer range and breadth of people described, and in the neutrality, the objectivity, with which he observes and captures them. Take the Moor from Verona:

His real name was Avesani, and he came from Avesa, the launderers’ quarter of Verona… He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on  his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, wile his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come. (pp.270-271)

There is immense authority in the flow of this prose, in the rhythm of the thought, and in the mighty and profound subject itself. In portraits like this, Levi gives us wonderful feel for humanity, for human beings in their rebarbative weirdness and variety. This human copiousness is the enduring effect of the book.

In the liberated camp

  • Old Thylle, a red triangle, a German political prisoner, one of the oldest inmates of the camp, who had never had to do manual labour.
  • Yankel, a young Russian Jew who, on the Liberation, is given the task of liaising with the inmates and also of driving the  horse and cart via which all the survivors are moved to the central barracks of the main Auschwitz complex (p.192). It is on this journey that Levi first grasps the sheer scale of the Germans’ vast slave industrial complex.
  • The nameless Frenchman whose skeletal body is contorted into a knot, like a root, who can’t speak, and who can’t be uncontorted, trapped in his physical psychosis (p.195).
  • Hurbinek, a three-year-old who didn’t speak, who couldn’t speak, who nobody had taught how to speak, whose eyes burned with anger at a world he couldn’t express, who died (p.198).
  • Henek, born in Transylvania, brought to Auschwitz when he was 14, with his whole family who were all gassed, survived in the children’s Kommando, and now, fit and alert, goes on scouting missions round the derelict camp, using Levi, still sick in bed, as guard of his slowly increasing ‘stash’ of goodies (p.200).
  • Peter Pavel, a beautiful blonde robust child who did everything carefully, punctiliously, as instructed and never looked or talked to anyone (p.200).
  • The two Polish girls, insolent ex-Kapo Hanka and little nymphomaniac Jadzia, who flirted with every available man.
  • Henek’s friend, Noah, ‘as strong as a horse, voracious and lecherous’, parading the derelict camp and making conquests in numerous female barracks (p.203).
  • Frau Vitta, a young widow from Trieste, survivor of Birkenau, compulsively cleaning and washing and looking after the sick and children, and then sitting by Levi’s bunk pouring out her story, trying to exorcise the images of dead bodies and body parts which fill her waking mind unless she is active (p.204).
  • André and Antoine, two French peasants from the Vosges, only been in the camp a month, lying in the infirmary with diphtheria. André died in mid-sentence from which point Antoine withdrew and went downhill. The doctor shook his head: ‘His companion is calling him.’ (p.205)
  • Olga, a Jewish Croat partisan who survived Birkenau and visits Levi to tell him the fate of the train load of Italians he arrived with, a long year previously. All dead, all gassed (p.206).
  • ‘There was a sort of human wreck, of indefinable age, who spoke ceaselessly to himself in Yiddish; one of the many whom the ferocious life of the camp had half destroyed, and then left to their fate, sealed up (and perhaps half protected) by a thick armour of insensitivity or open madness. (p.209)

Cracow

  • On the train journey to Cracow, Levi meets the master smuggler, merchant, dealer and fixer, Mordo Nahum, a ferociously competitive, mercantile Greek Jew from Salonika whose every waking hour was devoted to trading, dealing, scamming, estimating, (pp.209 ff.), ‘visibly an authority, a master, a super-Greek’ (p.217). With the appearance of Nahum, the tone begins to lighten and, astonishingly, you find yourself laughing out loud at their arguments and Nahum’s tricks. Many pages and months later, Levi bumps into Nahum at the Red Army barracks at Slutsk, where he has assumed responsibility for and re-organised a brothel of twenty or so strong Bessarabian women (p.296). A quintessential survivor.
  • The priest who Levi speaks to in Latin, who directs them towards the soup kitchen by the cathedral, who warns them not to speak in German (p.222).
  • The lawyer at the railway station of Trzebiania, who refuses to tell the crowd of Poles that gather round these strange shambling figures in their zebra pyjamas that they are Jews. Because the Poles might not sympathise so much. Because anti-Jewish feeling still exists. And also warns Levi not to speak German (p.227).
  • The Polish policeman in Szczakowa, who speaks awful Italian, learned while working as a miner in northern Italy, who kindly accommodates Levi and Nahum in the lovely warm cells of the town gaol, before they get the train on to Katowice (p.228)

Katowice

  • The huge 50-year-old Mongolian with massive hands, drooping Stalin moustache and fiery eyes who guards the entirely pointless entrance to Bogucice camp (p.230).
  • Captain Egorov, a little man ‘with a rustic and repulsive air’ (p.231).
  • Dr Danchenko, the doctor at Bogucice, almost permanently drunk and dedicated to seducing all available women, ‘with the mannerisms of an operetta grand duke’ (p.236).
  • Marya Fyodorovna Prima, who Levi befriends, a military nurse, about 40, who created the infirmary at Bogucice from scratch, fierce and silent like a large cat, she hails from the forests of Siberia (p.234).
  • Colonel Rovi, in fact an accountant of mediocre intellect possessed of an inexhaustible appetite for power who rises by sheer will power to command of the Italian continent at Bogucice (p.232).
  • Galina, the happy-go-lucky young girl who Levi finds himself having to dictate the days’ prescriptions to, once he has been given the job of assistant in the camp pharmacy. In fact the records they write up are no use to anyone, more interesting is Galina’s story of having been conscripted in the middle of nowhere and having accompanied the Kommandatur everywhere from the Crimea to Finland and now down to Katowice. One day the Kommandatur are ordered back to Russia and she disappears, not bothered in the slightest about having no pass or permit, ‘leaving behind her a sharp scent of earth, of youth and joy’ (p.239).
  • Ferrari, a failed thief who attended a school for thieves in Loreto but was arrested at his first attempt to razor open a woman’s pocket on a tram, sent to prison, caught up in some German roundup and ended up in  this godforsaken camp in Poland (p.240).
  • The NKVD inspector, thirty, a Jew, of an austere Don Quixote appearance, his inspection passes without comment but, when he discovers a motorbike in the camp, he commandeers it and ends up staying for months, eating heartily and spending the rest of  his time roaring round the surrounding countryside on his pride and joy (p.249). At a victory football match between Red Army soldiers and local Poles he is meant to be the referee but lets the game go on for over two hours while continually interrupting it by blowing his whistle at moments when a goal is looming, arbitrarily awarding fouls or free kicks to sides at random and sometimes running off with the ball to score a goal before doing a victory lap of honour with his hands clasped over his head. In scenes like this the book becomes entirely comic in tone (p.266).
  • Cesare, barely twenty, another seasoned merchant, fraudster, fiddler and fixer, ‘an untameable man’ (p.302) but – unlike Nahum – full of genuine human warmth. Levi strikes up a close friendship as they go on daily expeditions from the camp to the main centre of Katowice and its enormous market. Chapter 5 is devoted to Cesare, who can only speak Roman ghetto slang, ‘very ignorant, very innocent and very civilised’. Observing Cesare scamming and bartering ‘reconciled me to the world and once more lit in me that joy of living which Auschwitz had extinguished’ (p.252).
  • Soon Cesare has a fixed place in Katowice market and a regular clientele he has spirited into existence by giving them nicknames: the Bearded Lady, Skin and Bones, Booby, Three Buttocks, the Street Walker, Frankenstein, Old Bailey and many others (p.257). (Cesare’s last adventure is told in the later collection, Moments of Reprieve)
  • Dr Gottlieb, himself an inmate of the Lager has managed, in just a few months, to transform himself into the most esteemed doctor in Katowice and made himself very wealthy. ‘Intelligence and cunning radiated from him like energy from radium’ (p.269).
  • Dusk, stage name of Ambrogia Trovati, thirty, small muscular and nimble, who passed his adolescence between prison and the stage and has got them inextricably muddled up (p.272).
  • Craveor, a professional criminal, a thief and burglar and a ponce. A native of Turin, he sets off to make his own way there and promises to take a letter from Levi to his mother and sister which, amazingly, he does, but then goes on to try and extort 200,000 lira out of them which he promises he’ll take back to Levi in Katowice. Luckily mother and sister don’t believe him, so he goes downstairs, steals Levi’s sister’s bicycle, and disappears. ‘Two years later, at Christmas, he sent me an affectionate greetings card from prison in Turin’ (p.275).
  • Mr Unverdorben, ‘a mild and touchy little old man from Trieste’ who refuses to reply to anyone who doesn’t address him as Mr, who tried his hand as a composer of a lyric opera, but chucked that in to become a chef on transatlantic liners (p.275).
  • The old lady shopkeeper in Katowice who turns out to be a German exile, expelled from Berlin for writing a long letter ‘To Mr Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin’ advising him not to wage a war because too many people would be killed and anyway Germany couldn’t win a war against the whole world. If only, she confides to Levi and Cesare as she sells them the ingredients for a big spaghetti al burro, the rulers of the world would listen to people like her! (p.280)

And so on, at this rate of one or so pen portraits per page, of characters grim or humorous, for another 100 pages, crowds of people bursting the pages.

Only when I began to note them, did I realise just how much of these two books is about other people, how they are crammed to overflowing with brief lives and encounters with other people, in all their puzzling vibrancy and otherness. How the two books, despite their often terrible subject matter, somehow ending up being hymns to human nature.

The Russians

These two books, If this Is A Man and The Truce, can be contrasted on all sorts of levels: Death versus Rebirth; the Drowned versus the Saved; Night versus Day; Imprisonment versus Freedom.

On another level they are books about Germans and about Russians, respectively. From a hundred war movies we are familiar with Nazis barking their orders with what Levi describes as a millennium of anger in their voices. The Truce is interesting, apart from anything else, for giving a travelogue description of ordinary life in Stalin’s Russia – in isolated villages, in railway sidings, in Red Army barracks. If there is one theme which prevails, if there is one thing which characterises the liberating Russians, it is warm, peasant, crude CHAOS. Everywhere he finds things being done in ‘the Russian manner – to human measure, extemporaneous and crude’ (p.194).

The Russian administration took no care at all of the camp, so that one wondered if it really existed; but it must have existed, since we ate every day. In other words, it was a good administration. (p.299)

For example, as the authorities organise the various trains Levi and his fellow Italians have to catch, he reflects that the Germans would have a precise departure time and stick up well-printed posters, in all relevant languages, giving precise details of departure time and what may or may not be carried. Late-comers will be shot. Whereas the Russians don’t distribute any printed matter, give no reliable times and let the thing more or less organise itself which, time after time, it does (p.300). Throughout the book, Levi admires the Russian authorities’ ‘habitual and benign negligence and botchery’ (p.248), ‘the age-old beneficent Russian insouciance, that Oblomovian negligence’ (p.346).

Or take the way the Russian dole out the same ration of tobacco to every person in Cracow regardless of age or sex – so that even babies received the ten ounce packet (p.220). Or the way the punishment cell at Starye Dorogi is only used once, when the authorities get cross at an illegal butcher slaughtering and selling Red Army horses. But, with characteristic nonchalance, the authorities send three rations to the cell regardless of how many people are in it, the butcher emerged from his ten days of ‘punishment’ as fat as a pig (p.327). Or the way the cooking at the vast camp at Slutsk is simply assigned to a different nationality each week, you’d have thought a recipe for chaos but which in fact encourages each group to outdo each other with portions and novelty (p.298).

Similarly, at the camp of Bogucice, a suburb of Katowice, the Russians set one guard with a sten gun, who sometimes makes a fuss about seeing your propusk or pass, if you go in our out the main gate past him. But from his vantage point he can see a big hole in the barbed wire fence and happily watches as all the inmates as want to pass in and out as they please. Russian laissez-faire (p.230).

Later, at the Krasny Dom or Red House, an enormous building near the village of Starye Doroge, the 1,400 Italian pilgrims spread out to fill all rooms of this bizarre rambling edifice, set up all kinds of scams, forage for food, discover two German women in a woodland hideaway who are working as prostitutes, start trading with the local peasants and selling on the inedible fish they’re getting as rations to the hordes of Red Army soldiers passing along the main road nearby, in haphazard and extreme disorder.

They stay at Krasny Dom for two months, from 25 July to 25 September.

At several points Levi’s relief at escaping the insane and murderous precision of the Germans overflows into virtual worship of the anarchic, rough and ready Russian soul.

And yet, under their slovenly and anarchical appearance, it was easy to see in them, in each of those rough and open faces, the good soldiers of the Red Army, the valiant men of the old and new Russia, gentle in peace and fierce in war, strong from an inner discipline born from concord, from reciprocal love and from love of their country; a stronger discipline, because it came from the spirit, than the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand, living among them, why this former discipline, and not the latter, had finally triumphed. (p.232)

To life!

Even if it wasn’t following on from the death camp darkness of its predecessor, this would be a joyous book, but being set against the darkest hole in history gives it extra power and Life. Despite starting in mud and despair, it ends up being a hymn to life, to all human life, to all human beings, to the value and respect we owe each other.

To Life! L’chaim!

The truce

Except…

When the Italians are finally informed they will be returning home and embark on the epic, roundabout, painfully disorganised and achingly slow train journey back to Italy, as they cross the border and finally realise they are home, Levi’s heart is heavy. For now the real trial begins: the trial of resuming a place in the normal workaday world from which he was torn twenty months earlier, or meeting friends, family, workmates and… How to explain? What to say? Where to begin? – He realises the past few months in Russia have been a holiday, a ‘truce’, before he faces this next, arduous, second part of his life.

And there is another aspect to the title. At several moments, some of the many characters point out to a disheartened Levi that, despite appearances and official announcements, the war isn’t over. ‘There is always war,’ as Nahum says, memorably (p.224). And indeed, within weeks of the official end of the war on 8 May, the tone, the atmosphere in Russia changes. While at the stopover at Zhmerinka, Levi is alarmed to see a massive sign which had read ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ being whitewashed and repainted to read Vpered na Zapàd‘ – ‘On towards to the West’ (p.292). Enmity between Soviet Russia and the West began before the war even finished, and was to harden quickly.

This is the second, buried, meaning of the title, and why it isn’t titled ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberation’. In Levi’s baleful view, the period of his personal liberation and the liberation of hundreds of thousands like him, occurred in a window, a moment outside conflict, a lacuna between the vicious six years of the world war and the start of the next massive conflict, the Cold War which, in the years when Levi wrote this sequel, almost broke into a war of total annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962).

So it was a truce in every sense, personal, and political. And we readers are hugely lucky, for out of it comes this marvelous book, full of life and colour. To read it is to start in one of the darkest places of human history, mired in death and pointless cruelty – but then to be brought slowly up into light and air, and finally left marvelling at the strange, incongruous, vicious, endlessly adaptable and often hilarious creatures which we humans seem to be.


Credit

La tregua by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1963. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by Bodley Head in 1965. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. (p.96)

Levi spent a year in Auschwitz concentration camp – from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russians in January 1945. He was one of the very few Jews to survive the experience and write about it. This is his account.

Lead-up

Having been born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, he came to adulthood and was pursuing studies to become an industrial chemist at just the time that Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, allowed himself to be dragged into Hitler’s European war, and then came under growing pressure from the Nazis to enact German-style anti-Semitic legislation.

To escape the increasing anti-Jewish persecution, Levi took to the mountains outside Turin in late 1943, to form a ragtag group of ‘partisans’. They were captured on 13 December 1943 and interned in an Italian camp. Then, on 21 February 1944, came the order to load all the Jews in the camp onto trains – into the notorious cattle trucks, 650 people packed into 12 trucks, with no heating, seats or toilets. They began an agonisingly slow journey North and East – through Austria and Czechoslovakia, then across the border into southern Poland, arriving at the siding of the vast industrial-concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau one dark night.

If This Is A Man is the relatively short (160 pages in the Abacus paperback) but devastating and upsetting account of his experiences there. In his introduction Levi explains that the 17 chapters were written in order of intensity of the memories, and only later re-arranged into a sort of chronological order. This explains what I think is the key feature of the book – it is not an account of what he saw there, it is a meditation on what it meant, on what he learned.

Thus there is detail about the first few hours – how almost all the women, children and elderly are taken off in one group at the siding, to be gassed and incinerated (though none of them realised it at the time); how the remaining 96 men were processed into the work camp of Monovitz-Buna, which involved standing around naked waiting to be deloused, being shaved, having a number tattooed on your wrist – Levi is number 174517.

My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die. (p.33)

But then it jumps quite quickly to a few months later, into the heart of the condition – when Levi has become a shambling slave like all the others, shattered by the starvation rations, by the long hours of gruelling physical labour, by lack of sleep, by permanent illness, dysentery, running sores, by the freezing grip of the never-ending Polish winter.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this. (p.32)

And it’s not just the physical privations: it’s the psychological destruction wrought by the camp. Using the Teutonic efficiency which he ironically refers to throughout (for every person missing the roll-call, ten would be shot), the Germans systematically destroy each inmates’ self-respect and then their bare humanity: shaving the head and tattooing a number is just the start of a process which continues with the constant beatings and kickings by the ‘Kapos’ (Jews appointed as work overseers), the implementation of a host of petty regulations (‘the rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless’, p.40), the way all authority sees through them, ignores them, makes it clear in a host of ways that they are non-people, non-humans, dead men walking.

For beneath all the daily humiliation and struggle to survive, is fear of the ‘selections’ when the inmates are given a card with a number and go naked from one dormitory to another, handing the card to a bored SS man holding a clip file. In those two or three seconds he makes snap decisions about who looks well enough to carry on working, and who is obviously kaput and will be sent, the next day, to the gas chamber. Later, those who know they will die distribute their meagre possessions (a spoon, a bowl) and lie on their bunks staring glassy eyed into nothingness.

We prisoners

Because he is concerned to plunge the reader into the heart of the experience, Levi routinely uses the second person plural, ‘we this’, ‘we that’, to convey the sense of the communal experience, to make himself a representative figure, an everyman or more accurately, everyslave figure – embodying in the degradation and immiseration of his person the suffering of millions and millions of his fellow Jews as well as the hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish victims of the camps.

We have learnt.. to reply ‘Jawohl‘, never to ask questions, always pretend to understand. We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose crumbs… We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap round our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold… (p.39)

So it isn’t a straightforward factual account. It is an existential account. Levi returns again and again to the experience, the feeling of being reduced to a number, a shambling skeleton, a wreck of a human being.

A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body… On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my emaciated body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening. (p.43)

He drums into us the monotonous rhythm of camp life, waking before dawn on freezing mornings, roused and dressed and checked and then marched off to work, work, work when they could barely stand.

Teachings

Levi always refers to the camp as the ‘Lager’, the German word. Here everyone is set against everyone else. People are reduced to animals who will squabble and fight about crumbs of food. On the other hand, down here at the bottom, you learn the basic rules of humanity and of survival. Everything can be stolen. Even when washing in the fetid unclean water, never let go of your shirt or jacket or beret, which you must clutch between your knees. Never put down any of your belongings, they will be stolen. Take advantage of any opening, any offer of extra food, a day without work, every five minutes not spent slaving is a window, an opportunity to recover energy.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Drowned and The Saved’ and this is a central division, a profound division among the inmates, which Levi observed, so important that he gave the name to a collection of essays he published 40 years later. Some people are survivors: they strive for a ‘place’, position, any kind of small privilege, often acting the part and in the end being appointed overseer of this bit of work, or elder in a dormitory or even Kapo – all with the promise of more food and less work. Others – the drowned – from the start give in, collapse, fold up on themselves, lacking the inner resources, the steel, the determination to survive and prove the Germans wrong.

  • the privileged will always abuse the unprivileged: it is how they demonstrate to themselves that they are privileged
  • to those that have will be given more; to those that have nothing, everything will be taken away (p.94)
  • ‘One of the most important things I had learned at Auschwitz was that one must always avoid being a nobody. All roads are closed to a person who appears useless, all are open to a person who has a function, even the most fatuous.’ (p.235)

In his repeated technique of drawing general observations about human nature from various aspects of the camp, we see Levi the scientist, the PhD chemistry student, weighing and analysing, regarding the Lager as ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (p.93) – justifying his claim in the Preface, that the book wasn’t written to add to the accusations against the Germans (many of whom were still being tried at the Nurenberg Trials when he wrote it), but ‘to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ (p.15).

Other people

In this condition of subjugation and deliberate dehumanisation, Levi marvels at the people around him. In what will become his trademark approach, Levi gives cameos of people he sees with a kind of wondering alienation. He wonders how so-and-so survives despite being so sickly, he admires the strong who have shouldered their way into enjoying some petty privilege, he is full of contempt for those who could help their fellows but don’t.

In this grim landscape there is rarely the opportunity for friendships or relationships. Instead he gives us moments of interaction between inmates which he turns into moralised vignettes, gestures which point towards larger human truths. The many individuals he names or describes are individuals but at the same time somehow, types, essences, possible variations of the human creature.

Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. (p.98)

Levi devotes chapter 11 to the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy (and his attempt to remember it properly and explain it to a fellow inmate, Jean, ‘the ‘Pikolo of our Kommando’, as a kind of test that he is still a civilised man). You can make an obvious comparison: Dante used figures from his own day, including many of his own friends and acquaintances, to point larger morals about sin and redemption; ditto Levi in the camp.

  • Steinlauf, ex-Austrian army, fought in the Great War, teaches Levi that you must go through the rituals – washing in fetid water, ‘cleaning’ the greasy muddy shoes – in order to maintain your ‘dignity and propriety’, so you don’t descend into slovenly brutes (p.47).
  • Null Achtzehn, a man reduced to the last three digits of his camp number (018), shambling wreck, an emptiness, stands tottering with no impetus of his own: he will go to the gas chamber with the same lack of interest.
  • Chajim, a Polish watchmaker who retains dignity by adapting his skills to the new situation (p.53).
  • Schmulek, a Polish Jewish albino, selected for death, he quietly gives Levi his spoon and knife (p.59).
  • Alberto, an optimistic 22-year-old Italian Jew who manages to befriend everyone, wangle favours from everyone, without actively hurting others, a ‘rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted’ (p.63).
  • Engineer Kardos has developed a speciality in tending the inmates’ feet, lancing boils, cleaning wounds, tending corns, getting paid in fragments of bread (p.64).
  • Resnyk, a tall courteous Italian, with whom Levi must share his narrow bunk (p.71).
  • Schepschel, survivor of four years in the camp, doesn’t hesitate to betray his partner in a theft from the kitchen, Moischl, to a flogging, in the mistaken belief it will gain him credit in the eyes of the block supervisor (p.99).
  • Alfred L., director of a chemical factory who grasped from the start that you must act like one of the saved, dress and hold yourself and talk like a ‘prominent’ and whose long term plan paid off when he was appointed head of the Chemical Commando, a position of privilege he defended with complete ruthlessness.
  • Elias Lindzen, an immensely tough muscular dwarf, a ball of muscle, impossible to understand his deformed Yiddish, a phenomenal worker who gains a position of respite, and devotes himself to full time theft and survival. A monster. A ‘para-human’. Perfectly suited to life in the camp (p.103).
  • Henri, a civilised 22-year-old Frenchman, whose brother died in Buna camp and who has perfected a seductive manner with which he charms all sorts of favours out of all sorts of inmates and supervisors, all the time covering his soul in an impenetrable carapace. Charming and utterly cold (p.106).

There are quite a few more pen portraits, in the remaining 70 pages, which I won’t list here. But this list shows several things:

  1. Levi succeeds in his attempt to record all the people he can – as witnesses, as testimony, as a simple record of the lives of victims otherwise reduced to a nullity and then exterminated
  2. Levi’s ability, as a writer, a chronicler, to create such vivid pen portraits, to produce very powerful short cameos of those around him
  3. Levi’s ability to see beneath the individual to the general ‘laws’ of human nature, which fascinate Levi the scientist

An ending

To his amazement Levi is called to an interview to work in an actual chemistry laboratory. He will never forget the way the blonde Aryan chemist interviewing him, regards him. He gets the job and does his best to clean himself before coming to the lab each day, but can’t ignore the looks of repulsion on the faces of the pretty German secretaries.

But it isn’t the lab job which saves him; it’s getting ill. Throughout the autumn of 1944 rumours had spread that the Allies have landed, somewhere far away in France, and that the Russians are throwing the Germans back. By Christmas they can hear the low rumble of the guns at the front, off to the East. And it’s at this crucial point that Levi contracts scarlet fever, and is in the Ka-Be, the Krankenbau, the infirmary full of the sick and dying, when the Germans make the momentous decision to evacuate Auschwitz. Some 20,000 surviving inmates were lined up and marched off west. As history records, almost none of them survived the long, pointless march through the Polish snow and ice.

One morning the infirmary inhabitants wake up and all the Germans have gone. The last chapter returns us to time, to human time. It is in diary form, recording in detail the events of the ten days between the Germans’ departure and the arrival of the Russians – January 18 to 27 – because now days are no longer an indefinite repetition of grey monotonous slavery: they come alive with individual features; they progress; things change.

So in the last few pages the still sickly Levi forms an alliance with two Frenchmen, new to the camp and so still with residual energy, Charles and Arthur, and set about scavenging the camp for food and treasure. They find a stove, break up firewood, discover a huge store of frozen potatoes and turnips. They collaborate. They use initiative and imagination. They become human again, rising up from their slave nullity, and this – as well as the sense of the approaching Russian liberators – gives the final pages an extraordinary force and energy and excitement, which lifts the reader out of the despairing pit of the central core of the book.

But leaves you, nonetheless, with pitiful haunting memories.

He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? (p.72)

The warning from the camp

There is no one place you can point to and say this is Levi’s Great Message; instead there are lots of scattered insights and warnings. In the Preface he comes nearest to a general conclusion:

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (p.15)

I take this to mean that the temptation to define one or some groups as ‘the other’, the ‘strangers’, is a part of all human nature. To insult or abuse or threaten the other, the stranger, minorities or outsiders, is always tempting and, on a psychological level, often pleasurable because it fulfils some basic human need. ‘Disconnected’ acts of abuse or threat are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life, no matter how much we disapprove.

The watershed, the crux, the line in the sand – is when threats and abuse become part of a ‘system’, and are officially sanctioned. Either by a powerful group, by a political party or – God forbid – by a government. At that point, the doorway to the Lager is opened.

Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.15)

It is this demonising of any social group, or gender, or religion, or minority, which invokes the shadow of the death camps, and which it’s in all our interests to avoid and prevent.


Credit

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi was published by the small publisher, De Silva in 1947. In 1958 it was republished by the bigger publisher, Einaudi and became better known. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by the Orion Press in 1959. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

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)

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