If Not Now, When? Essay - Critical Evaluation

Primo Levi

Critical Evaluation

Primo Levi, who was born in Turin in 1919 and trained as a chemist, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. His experiences in the Nazi death camp are the subject of several of his memoirs, Se questo è un uomo(1947; Survival in Auschwitz, 1961), La tregua(1963; The Reawakening, 1965), Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), and I sommersi e i salvati(1986; The Drowned and the Saved, 1988). As an Italian Jew, he holds an unusual place among Holocaust writers. Jews in Italy were not subject to the same degree of hatred and prejudice as the Eastern European Jews. In general, they were thoroughly assimilated in Italian society until the 1938 race laws of Fascist Italy officially adopted Nazi racial theories. As a result, Jewish tradition was attenuated in Italy. Even at Auschwitz, Levi writes, there were Jews who were suspicious of the Italians because they did not speak Yiddish.

Language, its use and power, is an important theme in Levi’s work. In his books about the concentration camps, Levi explores how language reflects relationships between inmates and between inmates and guards. His novel If Not Now, When? is an attempt to understand and explore Eastern European culture and the Yiddish language, which was unfamiliar to Levi himself, and to present Eastern European Jews to his Italian audience, who also knew little of them.

Levi’s own voice is noted for restraint. The precision and economy of his style and the acuteness of his observation have been attributed to his training as a scientist. He writes of the horrors of the death camps with a quiet understatement that is immensely effective. Although If Not Now, When? is outwardly an adventure story, it is also a quiet and rather private tale. The narrator, Mendel, is as reflective as Levi when he narrates the story of his experience. The inner dynamics of the partisan group is as much a part of the story as are their acts of sabotage. Levi contrasts Mendel, for example, who is always careful and...

(The entire section is 849 words.)