Primo Levi Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1393

Most of Primo Levi’s work (with the exception of The Monkey’s Wrench ) can be placed within the genre of Holocaust literature. As a survivor of Auschwitz, Levi blended personal reminiscence and reflection to depict his major preoccupation, the unfathomable horror that was the Holocaust. Almost totally devoid of self-pity,...

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Most of Primo Levi’s work (with the exception of The Monkey’s Wrench) can be placed within the genre of Holocaust literature. As a survivor of Auschwitz, Levi blended personal reminiscence and reflection to depict his major preoccupation, the unfathomable horror that was the Holocaust. Almost totally devoid of self-pity, Levi reserved his concern for others. He never indulged in luridness or melodrama. Rather, his tone is clear, straightforward, and moderate—his passion, muted. Although his writing deals with the deepest of human emotions and feelings, it remains restrained in a manner that makes for a quiet intensity, which is only emphasized by his subtle (if somewhat startling) humor. Through his unflinching and careful use of detail, he presents a picture of human degradation. Despite the bleakness inherent in Levi’s usual subjects, however, his portrayal leads not to bitterness but, astoundingly, to a compelling affirmation of life, to a sense of faith in humanity, to a compassionate understanding of both victims and victimizers, and, finally, to a powerful and moving vision of the dignity of humankind.

The Monkey’s Wrench

Although Levi’s first piece of long fiction, The Monkey’s Wrench, represents a divergence from his usual concerns (and therefore is lighter and even more amusing in tone), it still reflects Levi’s life experiences, and Levi himself is one of the main characters. This work has been widely classified as a novel. In actuality, however, The Monkey’s Wrench defies classification, being a combination of autobiography and long and short fiction. Indeed, in an interview with Philip Roth, Levi implied that he did not consider The Monkey’s Wrench to be a novel. The work is, perhaps, best regarded as a collection of short stories linked by a narrative situation: The unnamed narrator/writer, who represents Levi, for the most part listens to and records stories related by Faussone, theprotagonist and Levi’s self-styled alter ego. This frame automatically emphasizes the complex relationship between storyteller and listener, between writer and reader.

In the street-smart, cocky, energetic Faussone, Levi created one of his most fully realized characters. An itinerant steelworker, Faussone (like Levi and the narrator) comes from Turin. In seemingly artless monologues, Faussone articulates his devotion to work, a passion he shares with the narrator, who finds, “If we except those miraculous and isolated moments fate can bestow on a man, loving your work (unfortunately, the privilege of a few) represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth.” In fact, the central metaphor of the novel has to do with the relationship between life and work, whether the comparison is to rigging, to chemistry, or to writing.

Like Levi, the narrator is a chemist (a paint specialist) and author from Turin. Just as Levi became a full-time writer in 1977, the narrator (who, in describing his writing generally alternates between the languages of rigging and of chemistry) relates his last adventure as a chemist and marks his impending transition: With nostalgia, but without misgivings, I would choose another roadthe road of the teller of stories. My own storiesthen other people’s storieshis [Faussone’s], for example.it was possible that, having spent more than thirty years sewing together long moleculesI might have learned something about sewing together words and ideas.

If Not Now, When?

If in his previous works Levi depended primarily on his own individual experience, If Not Now, When? is based on the true story of Jewish partisans who banded together to fight the Nazis. Levi described this deliberate new direction in his writing in his interview with Roth: “I had made a sort of bet with myself: after so much plain or disguised autobiography, are you, or are you not, a full-fledged writer, capable of constructing a novel, shaping characters, describing landscapes you have never seen? Try it!” In If Not Now, When? for the first time Levi imagines rather than recalls events surrounding the Holocaust. He reconstructs a people (Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews whom Levi had not known before his concentration camp experience), a period (World War II), a setting (the countryside of Eastern Europe), and even a language (Yiddish) to celebrate the active resistance of the Jews, arguing against the commonly held notion that all Jews passively submitted to their fate at the hands of their Nazi murderers. Levi outlined his intentions thus: I wished to assault a commonplace still prevailing in Italy: a Jew is a mild person, a scholar (religious or profane), unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back. It seemed to me a duty to pay homage to those Jews who, in desperate conditions, had found the courage and the skills to resist.I cherished the ambition to be the first (perhaps only) Italian writer to describe the Yiddish world.

The story begins in 1943 as two Russian Jews—Mendel, one of the main characters, a resourceful and philosophical watchmaker whose wife has been slaughtered by the Nazis, and Leonid, an uncommunicative young concentration camp escapee—try to elude the Nazis. Living hand-to-mouth as they travel over marshes, forests, and countryside, they join with various ragged groups of refugees, stragglers, and partisans attempting both to survive and to fight the Germans. Eventually, the two meet a group of Jewish partisans, the Gedalists, named for their leader, Gedaleh. This courageous band—comprising a wide variety of Polish and Russian men and women, from former Soviet soldiers to fugitives of Nazi roundups and concentration camps—aims to survive, to harm the Germans, and eventually, to reach Palestine. Traveling over much of the same territory Levi himself crossed on his protracted journey home from Auschwitz (chronicled in his memoir, The Reawakening), the partisans get as far as Italy before the novel ends, as does the war in Europe, in August, 1945.

The novel oscillates in atmosphere from romantic to epic. The tone is not indignant, but rather reflective, understated, and at times quietly humorous. What distinguishes this work from most Holocaust literature is that Levi rarely details the German atrocities that form the backdrop of this story. Explicitly, “this story is not being told in order to describe massacres.” Nevertheless, images of the grotesqueness of the Holocaust are a silent presence, almost more notable in their absence. As one character explains to another, “It’s the first rule.If we kept on telling one another what we’ve seen, we’d go crazy and instead we all have to be sane, children included.”

Action-packed, tense, and suspenseful, the plot of this stirring war story is (like the plot of The Reawakening) picaresque. Levi is a master of the episodic, a painter of poignant vignettes. As they travel westward from Russia to Italy, their springboard to Palestine, the Gedalists risk considerable danger to sabotage the Germans, engaging in a series of rearguard acts of harassment and guerrilla warfare—from ambushing trains to liberating concentration camps—that are variously amusing, frightening, exciting, and moving.

If Not Now, When? is also a novel of character, however. In fact, Levi later confessed, “For the first and only time in my life as a writer, I had the impression (almost a hallucination) that my characters were alive, around me, behind my back, suggesting spontaneously their feats and their dialogues.” Irrepressible and courageous, individual members of the Gedalists are sharply and insightfully drawn. The characters are made all the more vivid and striking through a series of elegant and wonderful metaphors.

Mendel’s character is the most fully developed, and, as the third-person narrator, continually presents his innermost thoughts. This is in direct contrast to the presentation of the elusive Gedaleh, whose interior consciousness, and consequently his character, remains remote. Introduced as “the legendary leader” of the partisan group, Gedaleh, with his violin as talisman, is appropriately mysterious and heroic.

As for the group itself, the narrator presents the inner thoughts of the band as a whole, expressive of a developing Jewish collective consciousness. It is here that Levi strikes a chord of universality: The possibility for community, camaraderie, mutual responsibility, and unity emerges as the final lesson to be learned from the Holocaust and from all of Levi’s works. Perhaps this lesson is best expressed in the words of Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

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