on 26 February 2011
The book is a compilation of two books, initially published separately, namely "If this is a man" and "The truce". The first book is an autobiographical account of the approximately 11 months he spent at a concentration camp in Auschwitz. The second book is an account of his long journey home, administered by the russians, which takes him on several detours around Russia and Europe before returning to his home in Turin, Italy.
In "If this is a man", Levi describes the conditions at Auschwitz, right from his arrival, at which point he has no idea what a concentration camp is, let alone that such things exist, until his departure 11 months later by the hands of the russians. The conditions are, obviously, horrendous. Levi describes this unemotionally and soberly, and the lack of hyperbole makes the account all the more eerie and unpleasant. The most notable property of the account is his description of the effect of the camp on himself and his fellow prisoners. He analyzes what traits make people liable to die quickly, what traits make people liable to degenerate to animals, and what traits make it possible for people to survive Auschwitz without losing their humanity. In this sense, Levi turns the story of Auschwitz into a profound parable of the basest and the noblest in human nature.
The second book, "The truce", describes Levi's journey home. The conditions are not as dire as those encountered in the camp. What makes the book very interesting is the description of the breakdown of society after the war. The russian administration appears to have very little coordination as regards their transportation of the concentration camp victims. The small societies which Levi and his companions pass through are often ravaged by war and abandoned. This makes the book a very frightening story of what happens when society ceases to exist and anarchy is allowed to reign. Levi also meets some very colorful individuals along the way, which in themselves are interesting to observe.
Both books are well written. They are some of the most emotionally touching books I have read in a long time. I highly recommend them to anyone.
on 12 January 2006
If this book is not on the national curriculum as essential reading for the European History module, then it should be. Before I bought this book, I asked myself "did I want to read another book on the Holocaust"? This isn't neccessarily about the Holocaust, in fact, a small portion of the book takes place in Auschwitz, it's more about one mans survival through hell, uncertainty and the unknown. Yet, because it is beautifully written, it uplifts, rather than depresses the reader. Levis' gentle prose style and almost photographic memory make this book a must read. It's a book that I will read many times throughout my life. Buy it!
on 13 January 2004
Levi survived a year in Auschwitz and these two books describe that year and the journey home afterwards. They are not histories of the holocaust, or political or religious essays. They are merely the story of one person and what he saw. The scale of death in the camps was so enormous that it is easy to forget that each life and death was a real, living person, and that is what Levi achieves brilliantly, and why this book deserves to be widely read.
One of the most powerful aspects 'If This is a Man' is that Levi never judges. He doesn't use adjectives like 'horrific' of 'evil', he just describes what he saw and what he went through in rather dry language, and leaves you to decide what you feel about them. This, in part, is because, as Levi points out, he was so close to death on a daily basis that he stopped thinking about his situation as a whole and just concentrated on staying alive one day at a time. This was the dehumanising effect of the camp, where so much energy was spent staying alive that the prisoners had little left with which to remember that they were human beings. The book is the story of Levi's survival and his attempts to cling to humanity.
The second book ('The Truce') is surreal by comparison. I had always imagined that once the camps were liberated then the story was over, and that the prisones would be swiftly treated and sent home. This was not true. The Russians that liberated them were poorly equipped and starving and the remaining prisoners (only the sick were left behind by the Germans) died in their dozens. They were eventually sent to camps in Cracow where they waited for repatriation. They were still starving and sick. They spent several months there before being transferred to another inside Russia. Levi describes life in these camps and the journeys between them. I found it incredible that after a year in Auschwitz the prisoners were still prisoners and had little expectation of returning home. But this book is a happier one, and is studded with surreal episodes like hunting horses on the russian steppes and pulling scams in polish markets. Whereas the first book is ultimately about the horror of humanity, this one is more about its absurdity. It is also written in the dry, observational style, and without judgement.
The final pages of this compilation are devoted to a question and answer session in which Levi, writing shortly before his death in the eighties, sets down the questions that he has been asked most often about his experiences. This is a very welcome touch, because the non-judgemental way in which he wrote the books, whilst being an essential part of his record of his experiences, do leave you wondering what sort of man he was, and what he really felt about the people that did this to him. This is ably answered in this last section. This, for me, completed the picture, so that I really felt that I understood, as much as I am able, one man's experience in the holocaust.
on 28 February 2006
I approached If This Is A Man with a certain amount of weariness. There have been countless films and books and TV programmes about the Holocaust, so what would one more book on the subject present? The answer to that is that If This Is a Man brings a real sense of the horror of Auschwitz to the reader. The figure of 6 million dead almost de-humanises the de-humanised: it is easy to rattle off that figure without actually thinking about the impact of separation, suffering and murder on an individual human being. This book hits the reader with the stark realities of day to day existence within the concentration camp.
Levi describes the nearest thing to Hell. Working to exhaustion in the freezing cold of winter, the beatings to which prisoners have become accustomed, lice and dirt, perpetual hunger and having to go to the 'toilet' several times during the night because of the heavily watered down soup. This latter task involves a hobble through the snow in a pair of wooden shoes (one pair per hut) to use a bucket which, if full, must be emptied by the unfortunate prisoner, who will try in vain not to spill the contents on his feet. Levi puts everything of our lives into the perspective of his as a prisoner. As prisoners slept head to foot next to each other, it was always better to empty the pail than to sleep next to someone who has just emptied it.
Levi deatils the average life expectancy of a healthy human being who does not find himself a niche or with something unique to offer. It is a shocking read, and while desperate to reach the end and find something to be optimistic about, the book held my attention from cover to cover.
At the end of the book are several questions put to the author by his readers (for instance, why did the prisoners not revolt against the Nazis?). The two titles are best read together, but of the two, If This Is Man is the more profound. An essential read for anyone interested in the subject.
on 29 January 2008
Where do you start with a book like this? It's brilliantly written, and compelling reading - for the quality of the narrative as much (more?) than the subject matter. But, of course, the subject matter makes it virtually unreadable. How much do you really want to know about the experience of drawing breath in one of the Auschwitz camps? How little imagination do you need to have, to need the monstrosity spelt out in all its tiny, obsessive detail? It appalled me to find myself turning the pages, unable to put it down without the expedient of falling asleep. It was like some twisted snuff porn on one level, as Levi led me through the minutiae of violence and death, like I was rubber-necking into the mangled driver's seat of a road fatality, and running my fingers through the spilled brains. Too much; all too much. Yet the book is an utterly compelling discussion of what defines 'man'; where the boundaries lie; what morality is; what language is; what judgement is. Like a single, extended essay on the big questions. Levi does not judge, he observes, with withering clarity, and leaves the reader to pick up the pieces. Along with All Quiet on the Western Front and one or two others, it's one of those books I felt immediately that I should go on to study in depth, while knowing that I will struggle ever to read so much as a line of it again. Levi observes that the experience of Auschwitz was like taking part in some social and psychological experiment of the most monstrous and preposterous scale, that only the most insane combination of events and people could have facilitated. Reading this book felt a lot like being allowed to peep into a world of unique atrocity; to share the thoughts of someone who had not only touched the depths, but had spent months grovelling around on the bottom. It felt both a privilege and a kind of outrage; shaming, emptying, and stupidly enlightening, in a way I didn't want to be enlightened. Am I in any way improved for having read it? Or scarred by the experience, in my own tiny way? I have no idea yet. Read it at your peril, but it is a stunning piece of writing and a terrible witness.
on 28 January 2015
First thing. This book is not an enjoyable read. It is a painful read of what day to day life is like in Auschwitz but I felt I had to read it. It avoids any sentimentality, any analysis of why the holocaust happened or any anger or resentment on the part of the author. It's a very direct read and gets straight to the point. It really helps you to come close to the author and his experiences and it helps you to put yourself in the authors shoes and how you would feel if you were put in the same situation. It affects you even more when you discover that the author died in a suspected suicide later in life due to depression.
The man who was Primo Levi died in Auschwitz and Auschwitz claimed his life four decades later. It's easy to feel very disconnected to the holocaust as we feel it occurred so many decades ago, but this book brings it right back home.
on 9 January 2004
I cannot praise this book highly enough.
Levi describes his time in Auschwitz with such clarity and objectivity it's as if he wanted to report the facts and let the world make it's own mind up. Having said that this is not a cold, clinical account, as with reportage, as Levi describes great compassion in friendships he makes and horror he sees.
His story is similar to many others (obviously as they all shared an experience) but I felt as though I was given a different perspective with this book.
This becomes clearer at the back of the book when Levi sets out a series of questions that he has been asked since he wrote the first edition. Here he gives answers to letters asking "Do you hate the Germans" and so on. I won't spoil the book by revealing any of his answers but they show why Levi is so respected as a writer of the Holocaust.
Since reading this I have read many of Levi's works and would suggest reading the 'Drowned and the Saved' which goes deeper into the people he met and contains an excellent chapter on how he survived while his friend was sent on the Death March when the camp was liquidated.
Philip Roth has described this as "one of the century's truly necessary books", and the adjective feels exactly right. It's not enjoyable, or uplifting, or brilliant, or sentimental, or entertaining, but you feel compelled to read it, and to tell everyone else about it. Previously, I thought I knew a little about the prison camps and the Nazi program for the extermination of the Jews, but Levi's dispassionate account of his world brings out a level of everyday detail that - incredibly - is almost mundane in its completeness.
In his introduction to the book, Levi signs off almost regretfully, saying "It seems to me unecessary to add that none of the facts are invented". At first, you wonder why he should - however gently - remind his reader of this, but then you're plunged into a world of such unbelievable horror that your only hope of relief would be that it wasn't all true. There are all kinds of ways in which he illustrates what it's like to live in a place that's so unrelentingly dedicated to your humiliation and destruction but, for me, one of the most memorable moments came when he was to be interviewed by one of the chemists in the rubber factory attached to the camp (in a withering aside that highlights yet another aspect of the total waste of human life, he also points out that - in spite of all the slave labour, all the prisoners who were worked to death by the Germans in the factory - it never actually produced anything).
He describes how the man looked at him "as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds". It's almost impossible to understand the depths of inhumanity that the Nazis plumbed, but Levi does that here, and reaches across the page to remind us of the perils and joys of the human condition.
on 13 January 2012
This is a multi-faceted short book, unfortunately poorly presented in the edition I review below (The Orion Press, copyright 2007 by BN Publishing). The book is translated by Stuart Woolf but it has poor text arrangement, numerous proofing errors; find a better edition if you can.
The book is 123 pages, the story of Primo Levi's recollections of Auschwitz. Levi was an Italian Jew, a chemist 24 years old. He was born and went to University in Turin. His Auschwitz ordeal started with capture in Italy by Fascist militia December 1st 1943, and he began the train trip to Auschwitz at the end of February 1944.
Mr Levi describes Auschwitz as a hell where death can occur any day, malnutrition is permanent, Jewish inmates are slaves of the other inmates, the onset of winter is dreaded, where every man is "desperately and ferociously alone". Ordinary language (words like hunger and winter) fails to capture the horror of such life, the intensity of experience. Perhaps limitations of language, and the desperate circumstances of life, explain why occasionally the text is almost dreamlike. More often it is straightforwardly descriptive and deeply moving. E.g.: "One wakes up at every moment, frozen with terror, shaking in every limb, under the impression of an order shouted out by a voice full of anger in a language not understood" ... (or) ... "(They began to interrogate us rapidly in bad Italian) How old? Healthy or ill? And on the basis of the reply they pointed in two different directions" ... (or) ... "The nurse .. turns to me, and in near-German, charitably tells me ... You Jew finished. You soon ready for crematorium".
The last chapter deals with Auschwitz as the Russians approached January 1945. Levi was fortunate to avoid a (death) march to the west because he was in Ka-Be (hospital) with scarlet fever. The camp guards disappeared, the food supply stopped ... and the Lager (camp) began to decompose: ... "ragged, decrepit, skeleton-like patients at all able to move dragged themselves everywhere on the frozen soil, like an invasion of worms".
on 27 September 1999
Levi was something of an enigma. In If This Is A Man, his writing is observational, intentionally detached. In this autobiographical account, he tells the story of his days as a Hafling in Auschwitz through the winter of 1944 to the liberation of 1945. Levi was 'lucky', he entered the camp when the Nazis were beginning to lose the war and so were stepping down the exterminations. He was also a chemist and so he entered the labour section, not the death section. His account tells of the collective hope, rivalries and hierarchies that were endemic in the camp. He tells of the rituals and punishments in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination despite it is obvious he is not intending to shock. He descibes friendships gained and inevitably lost to the gas chambers. In an effort to explain some events he also enters into the heads of his fellow prisoners, pschologically analysing them and himself, daring to explain and rationalise the prisoner's behaviour. Of the Nazis, he presents them with no such explanations or excuses. This is truly a miraculous piece of work that needs to be read. The last pages of the book are a testament to human pity and charity. In his following book, The Truce, he describes the uplifting hope that was experienced upon the camp's liberation, and the crushing disappointment when he was sent deep into Russia by the Allies. The book details his journey from Minske to Turin, though war ravaged Europe where danger and prejudice were everywhere. The hope, intelligence and strength of Levi shine through these works as one book ultimately compliments the other.