An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review - If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi

Primo Levi started his writing career before his incarceration in Auschwitz although it would seem only two short stories, which later appeared in The Periodic Table, survive. His ouvre consists mainly of memoirs and poetry. It wasn't until 1984 when  "If Not Now, When?" was written that Levi as a writer emerged. In this towering book we finally hear his proper authorial voice.

His sentences are beautiful and his paragraphs so well balanced that reading this work is almost effortless and at the same time almost endlessly satisfying and while the book ostensibly chronicles the wanderings and adventures of a group of mainly Jewish partisans in the rubble of the rout of Third Reich forces in Europe at the end of WWII there are other ways to read it. It is only when Levi finally turned to the novel form that he grudgingly gave the reader a valid role in his writing.

Although Levi was lionised for his memoirs and essays the justification for such heavy praise was, in this writer's opinion, chiefly based in the guilt that the non-Jewish readership felt after WWII and a fellow feeling among literary critics but this late work shows Levi in a more reflective and less polemical mind.   

Where his previous work concentrated on memorialising the horrors of the German project to annihilate Jewry "If Not Now, When?" examines the nature of resistance and integrity in the face of overwhelming circumstances and emphasises the humanity of its characters - the rich, the generous, the flawed, and sometimes hateful humanity of them.    

I was left wondering as I read this superb work whether Levi had finally come to terms with the reality that the holocaust had been something other than the unique, singularly evil, historically anomalous event that he had always portrayed. By 1984 Vietnam and the Cambodian genocide were already historically attested. By 1984 the disgraceful treatment of the Palestinians  was into its third decade and the first Lebanon War was over. The Sabra and Shatila Masacre was history by 1984.

For this reader the regular references throughout  "If Not Now, When?" to Palestine as the ultimate escape destination for his brave partisans are signifiers. His partisans talk of Palestine but never the Palestinians. Palestine is theirs by right. In Palestine the horrors of the holocaust can finally be laid to their proper historical resting place - burnt into the racial memory of mankind, never to be repeated and in this light the title and its context is oddly, macabrely ironic.