:: Blogtober is a blogging challenge whereby bloggers are encouraged to post every day for the month of October. My post topics have been taken from suggestions by friends and family. In general, expect my posts to be shorter, more random and of inconsistent quality! ::
There are several novels I have loved at different points in my life. They are books which have sustained me. Their themes and words and stories have circulated in my blood until they became part of the fabric of me. Those are not the books I mention when someone asks me about my favourite books.
If we tease apart "favourite" in this context, it probably means "most enjoyed". But I'm afraid I respond with the names of books I want people to read. I'm faintly interested in the fact that the two books I cite most frequently are non-fiction. That would not have been the case ten or fifteen years ago. I think it is not uncommon to read more non-fiction as we age. The more you know, the more you know you don't know.
Of course, "books I want people to read" and "books I have enjoyed", need not be mutually exclusive. But Primo Levi's "If This Is A Man" is not a book to be enjoyed. Written shortly after his return to Turin following 11 months of incarceration in Auschwitz, Levi's' book is one of our earliest accounts of the terrible inhumanities that took place there.
"If This is a Man" was not the first first-person account of the Holocaust that I read. Who could fail to be moved and horrified by any re-telling of the atrocities, but Levi's book is different. Unlike many accounts, Levi's has an immediacy and unsentimental quality which they lack. Levi had a simple aim: to be a witness to man's inhumanity to man. There is no "why" in this book, but rather an inquiry into what was done, and how some survived ("the saved") and some did not ("the drowned")*.
In the opening lines to the book, Levi refers to his "good fortune" in having been deported towards the end of the war, when conditions for prisoners had improved and lifespans extended. The notion of good fortune seems wildly incongruous in this context, but it is a theme which he returns to. In his depiction of camp life and the forensic unpicking of the characters around him, we see how some minute twist of luck can assign a person a chance of life beyond the wire.
Also notable, is the absence of the obvious. The brutality of the Nazis is not centre stage. Victimhood is absent, despite the operatic scale of the tragedy they were subjected to. Instead, Levi shines his light on the stubbornness, ingenuity, heroism and kindness of his fellow man.
It is difficult not to read the book in one sitting, although it is equally difficult not to pause and reflect on (and escape) the horror of it. This is a testament to Levi's writing, which is precise, engaging and humane. His narrative is clear-voiced and analytical, rich in detail and gentle in its handling of the precious lives in it.
More than anything, "If This Is A Man" is about the infinitesimal line between the drowned and the saved. He lived and, while the fact that he lived to bear witness would appear to be a testament to the unquenchable human spirit, it is also the opposite of that. Around him, human spirit was systematically annihilated. A lifetime later, in 1987, Levi committed suicide, falling from a third story apartment landing. In 1945 he was saved, but it seems there really was no escape.
What troubles me most about returning to this utterly necessary book is how needed it still is. It seems trite to pose the question, but has Theresa May read this book? Has Donald Trump? In his preface, Levi says, “Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that every stranger is an enemy". "If This Is A Man" follows that dangerous thought through to its logical conclusion.
“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
* Of the 650 Italian Jews who arrived in his transportation, Levi was one of only 20 to survive.
Want to read more? Cracking childish codes.