Aubrey's Reviews > If This Is a Man / The Truce

If This Is a Man / The Truce by Primo Levi
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'Hier ist kein warum' (there is no why here)

It was a naïve hope, like all those that rest on too sharp a division between good and evil, between past and future, but it was on this that we were living.
For reasons obvious to those who have been paying attention, I've been focusing more on Jewish people in my reading than I had been previously. This particular dearth in the past has everything to do with my continued fumbling through the biases of my appetites when it comes to the written word, as sweeping through and categorizing my shelves with the labels of 'people of color' and 'women' left no room for what antisemitism has wrought for millennia. The United States is no Europe, but when looking to its regional history, the concrete if seemingly disparate existences of a settler state, slavery (still legal if one is incarcerated), concentration camps (try 'immigration detention' on for size), the MS St. Louis, WASPS, Catholics, eugenics, and the El Paso 'disinfection' plant make for a potential that, in the century of the drone and the DNA databases, beats the best of both dystopia and science-fiction. There is no 'if' here. There is only a when.
In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of [humanity], and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.

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, and the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible., But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible?
If humanity ever figures out a way in which to manipulate a brain into never forgetting without resort to externalized processors, it won't be without breaking most, if not all, of the other functions the average neurotypical takes for granted. As such, I don't understand how Levi remembered all that he did, in such detail, in such times. Research and cross collaboration were not forbidden once a semblance of home had been achieved once again, of course, but as the author stated many times, the vast majority of those who shared his story are dead, and not every survivor wishes to remember what they survived.
Now I do not know Polish, but I know how one says 'Jew' and how one says 'political'; and I soon realized that the translation of my account, although sympathetic, was not faithful to it. The lawyer described me to the public not as an Italian Jew, but as an Italian political prisoner.
I asked him why, amazed and almost offended. He replied, embarrassed: 'C'est mieux pour vous. La guerre n'est pas finie.'

[O]nly at first glance does it seem paradoxical that people who rebel are those who suffer the least. Even outside the camps, struggles are rarely waged by Lumpenproletariat. People in rags do not revolt.
This isn't a handbook of how to combat what its pages contain in the future. Nor is it a model or an ultimate say on one of the many mass annihilation that have occurred since the time human beings evolved enough to segregate themselves and define the other as a worthy target of extermination. Primo Levi himself says he survived by chance, and so these writings, much as all writings are in the days of academic stagnation and capitalistic popularity contests (it took If This Is a Man eleven years and a republication to become what it is recognized as today), are beholden to chance, if perhaps in higher than average measure when the journey of the author is taken into account. The fact that he chose to target specific mythologies in his afterword (examples being the rise of the angry masses and the lack of courage of Jewish people) arose from even more chance, wherein audiences asked questions about certain topics and Levi responded to a certain few of those questions. Put together, you don't get the finale of the trilogy The Drowned and the Saved, or Levi watching the German translation and publication like a hawk, or his final years before he passed. What you get is a text written before decades of simplification into a trope wiped away the fact that the United States waging war against the Nazis was birthed out of chance, not a sizable difference in ideologies. Simply put, the clues are all there. All that is needed is the murder.
They were "charismatic leaders"; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the credibility or the soundness of the things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practiced. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannahs and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.
The knocked off half star is for the characterization of various evils and uncanny survival mechanisms as 'madness'. You can get mad at me for it right after you look up "the elimination of the incurably ill", "T-4", Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of Muenster, and euthanasia of disabled people up until the present day. In any case, it is not impossible to be both Jewish and disabled. Writings that reject such that occurred during the body of the memoirs, sunk into the present as they are, would have been understandable. Re-occurrences as a final conclusion in the afterword, written long after the diverse background of those condemned to the crematories had been revealed, are dangerously obtuse. As such, I recommend this book to those who are willing to learn from history, but do not equate it to swallowing any particularly history whole.
All the same I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon. No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.
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Reading Progress

09/06/2016 marked as: to-read
11/15/2016 marked as: currently-reading
11/17/2016 page 35 "'Hier ist kein warum' (there is no why here)"
11/25/2016 page 211 "It was a naïve hope, like all those that rest on too sharp a division between good and evil, between past and future, but it was on this that we were living."
11/30/2016 page 377 "I was amazed, but they laughed at my amazement: 'Hitler's dead, isn't he?'"
12/02/2016 page 390 "In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of [humanity], and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt."
12/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Christopher (new)

Christopher Howard At first, when I read the title, I thought the slash was a virgule, and that the title was a line in a poem.


Aubrey Christopher wrote: "At first, when I read the title, I thought the slash was a virgule, and that the title was a line in a poem."

Yes. The first and second are often packaged together these days, along with an afterword responding to comments on both. I haven't yet acquired the third one, The Drowned and the Saved, but I'm keeping an eye out for it.


Paul Excellent review Aubrey


Aubrey Thanks Paul.


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