If Not Now, When?

by Primo Levi
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

*Pripet Marshes

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*Pripet Marshes. Camp in western Russia built by one man around a downed aircraft that establishes the theme of personally created space. This is then expanded in the “Republic of the Marshes,” a refuge built in relative safety on the hummocks of the Pripet Marshes of Belorussia. As a makeshift social group of resistance fighters coalesces but moves on, other forms of shelter are briefly occupied, such as a set of chambers dug out from the shaft of a well.

*Poland

*Poland. Eastern European country caught between warring Germany and Russia. Although place is always being reidentified, as territory is yielded by the Germans or retaken by the Russians, the war is more than territorial. For many, not only place but also community has been eradicated: the destruction of Jewish towns, followed by the mass murder of Jews in the death camps. Even Poland itself risks disappearance. Earlier divided between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany into zones of intended future influence, it is now being fought over. As the tide of war turns against the Germans, the partisans, with Mendel at the focus of the reader’s attention, move westward behind enemy lines both to escape shelling and to continue their guerrilla war of harassment in the chaos of the once victorious army now falling back. Specific towns, rivers, and districts are mentioned early in the novel but the partisans’ local knowledge is soon exhausted and they move westward into a nameless landscape and collapsing social order.

*Germany

*Germany. Belligerent country through whose eastern region the partisans make their way to Austria, and from there to Italy. The partisans can rest at no one site for any lengthy period. In “the land of hunger” place is redefined daily by need, such as an abandoned field is marked off for an air-drop of relief supplies. The Soviets promote partisan activity behind German lines in the now emptying, so-called “Great Land” in order to lay better claim to future occupancy. Some of the illusion of emptiness is willed, since the Germans hope to destroy the evidence of the death camps before the day of judicial reckoning that many of them know must come. The partisans are more than the “displaced persons” of the postwar era, swept up and aside by events, because their sense of lost place is in part offset by growing group cohesion. Couples form—Mendel and Sissl, Leonid and Line, Mendel and Line; units realign themselves under leaders of varying ability and vision—Dov, Gedaleh.

*Milan

*Milan. Italian city relatively untouched by the horrors of war that the partisans eventually reach. There they even meet Palestinian Jews who help refugees. By now, the civilized urban space and functioning human society of Milan seem oddities to the survivors. So complete is their divorce from the superficial attributes of settled urban culture that they feel an “undefined malaise, which was homesickness for the forest and the open road.”

*Palestine

*Palestine. Middle Eastern territory mandated to British rule that after the events of this novel will form the basis of the independent Jewish-ruled state of Israel. The novel ends with the partisans being promised passage to Palestine on a ship; however, there are still hurdles to cross. British permission would be needed for a ship to come into port and for would-be settlers to disembark. Readers know what the partisans of the novel cannot: the contention over place, the birth and early life of the new Jewish nation will be no less marked by suffering than their flight across eastern Europe. From marsh to desert, place can be no more secure than before. Whatever their sense of reintegration into collective Jewish identity, their finest experience of community may lie in the past, in the makeshift camps along the path of flight and war. At the book’s end, a child is born to two of the partisans—a promise of future life—but on that same day the United States drops the first atomic bomb on Japan, in history’s relentless reconfiguring of place.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 180

Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Reading Primo Levi.” Commentary 80 (October, 1985): 41-47. Discusses Levi’s style, precision, irony, wit, and understatement. Eberstadt pronounces If Not Now, When? an artistic failure in spite of its important and engrossing subject.

Howe, Irving. “Primo Levi: An Appreciation.” In If Not Now, When?, by Primo Levi. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Discusses Levi’s use of imagination and adventure in the novel.

Hughes, H. Stuart. Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews 1924-1974. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Discussion of six prose writers. Places Levi’s work in the context of his background as an Italian Jew.

Roth, Philip. “Afterword: A Conversation with Primo Levi.” In Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi, translated by Stuart Woolf. New York: Collier Books, 1993. Offers Levi’s statements about what motivated him to write If Not Now, When?

Tager, Michael. “Primo Levi and the Language of Witness.” Criticism 35, no. 2 (Spring, 1993): 265-288. A thoroughly researched and documented discussion of Levi’s use of language. The theme of language as identity is found throughout the dramatic action of If Not Now, When?

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Critical Essays