If Not Now, When?

by Primo Levi

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Critical Evaluation

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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 thoughtful, with Line, who is bold and outspoken.

One of Levi’s purposes in writing If Not Now, When? is to disprove the misconception that Jews could not or would not fight and that they were led to the death camps like sheep to the slaughter. The tale of a Jewish partisan band is based on a true story told to Levi by a friend who worked at an Italian assistance center at the end of the war and encountered a band like the one in the novel. A central irony of the novel is the image of guns in the hands of the children of tailors and rabbis. Mendel learns to kill, yet remains a philosopher and a watch-mender. These Jews fought and killed without losing their deep repugnance at having to take up arms.

In the course of the novel, the war ends and the band of wandering Jews shifts its purpose from harassing the Germans to making its way to a new home in Palestine. At this point, the novel becomes the description of an odyssey, a series of adventures and mishaps as the partisans make their way home from the war. Mendel is a gentle survivor, a blend of Ulysses returning from Troy and Levi returning home after Auschwitz. The novel ends on a rather stereotypical note of hope when a child is born. Isidor and White Rokhele’s child was sheltered and awaited as a child of them all. He is born in Italy, on the shore at their departure for Palestine....

(This entire section contains 849 words.)

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A new life is beginning.

If Not Now, When? won prestigious prizes in Italy, yet it is qualified as an artistic success. Irving Howe writes that Levi stakes everything on his capacity to imagine experiences that are alien to him. Because Levi had to base his novel on research into Eastern European Jewish culture and language, the novel lacks the immediacy of his memoirs. Nevertheless, Howe finds that Levi’s literary gift for narrative movement reaches full play in this adventure story.

Fernanda Eberstadt, on the other hand, judges If Not Now, When? as an artistic failure. Although she credits Levi with having chosen an important and engrossing subject, she finds the plot at once stiffly schematic and unsettlingly random and the conversation leaden.

Levi is acclaimed for his concentration camp memoirs, in which detailed observation and the impact of his understated, restrained, economical style are juxtaposed with the horror of his material. The novel If Not Now, When? has a place in his total work, because here he seeks to understand and explain an aspect of the war that was alien to his own experience. He explores the culture of the Eastern European Jews that was unfamiliar to his own Italian Jewish culture, and he places Jews in the role of fighters. His style in the novel is as understated and ironic as in the memoirs. Artistically, the picaresque adventures of the partisan band allow him a freer imaginative rein than his own memoirs, and at the same time he continues to explore the place of language in relationships and cultures.


Critical Context