Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Beneath the action of the book lies a turbulent complex of ideas and discussions on fundamental and interlinked themes, such as the nature of heroism and self-sacrifice; historic, political, and personal motivations; the insidious and destructive power of racism; and the reality of being Jewish in a hostile world. The exploits of the partisans are recounted with the breathtaking tension of a wartime thriller, but Primo Levi never lets them remain mere adventures. Every achievement carries elements of failure; every positive action has a negative reaction. Levi also refers in several different ways to the sense of freedom the Jewish fighters experience when, away from the atmosphere of suspicion and bigotry of the towns and villages, they take to the fields and woods, in control of their own destinies.

In the many discussions around the camp, the partisans ask themselves whether they are Russian Jews or Jewish Russians. Most of them had started with a Russian identity, but with their families and homes now destroyed and their continuing encounters with anti-Semitism, their Jewish identity becomes dominant. The watershed proves to be the crossing of the Polish border. Not long afterward, Gedaleh, who periodically disappears for secret meetings with nameless contacts, tells his followers that they are no longer under Russian command; the group will remain autonomous but is now working under the Jewish Combat Organization.

Levi’s language is consistently simple and natural, but because he reinforces it with metaphor, unpretentious symbolism, and biblical allusion, it can comfortably encompass complex ideas. The contradictions and ambiguities which run throughout the book reach their culmination in the powerful final paragraph with the joyous birth of the baby and the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Nevertheless, Levi’s affectionate appreciation of the human spirit lifts the book beyond its internal doubts into an overall spirit of optimism.