by Myriam Anissimov,
translated by Steve Cox Aurum,
452 pp., ú25, 10 September, 185410 5035
'One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.'
The lucid and eloquent survivor of Auschwitz, the man who had returned home and had stayed at home since 1945, who had converted much of his life into a work of witness, a defence of light against the century's darkness, seemed not only to have taken his life but to have cancelled it.
Levi was born and died in Turin. The year of his birth, 1919, was also the year of the founding of the National Socialist and Fascist Parties in Germany and Italy. The confused and erratic Italian racial laws of 1938 meant that Levi could complete his doctorate in chemistry (in 1941) but only with a physics professor, since no one else would take him on. After one or two precarious industrial jobs in Turin and Milan, Levi joined the Partisans in the mountains, but was soon arrested by the Fascist militia, and detained in a camp. Here he expected to wait out the war, but quite suddenly, in February 1944, with the German take-over of the camp, all the Jews in Fossoli, some 650 persons, were deported to Auschwitz. Five hundred people, men, women and children, either died on the journey or were killed on arrival, the others were put to work. Only 23 came back.
In 1963, he published The Truce, describing his circuitous journey back to Italy through a war-ruined Russia, and his writing career began to come alive. He retired from the paint factory in 1975, and after The Periodic Table (1975), a combination of fiction and memoir centring on the chemical elements he wrote a stirring novel about Jewish partisans in Russia, called If Not Now, When (1982). But writing became difficult for him in his last years. He was at work on an epistolary novel when he died.
The Jewish community in Italy is said to be the oldest in Europe, and Levi thought of it, Anissimov says, as 'the most assimilated in the world.' Levi wryly describes his own early sense of Jewry: 'Jew is somebody who at Christmas does not have a tree, who should not eat salami but eats it all the same, who has learned a bit of Hebrew at 13 and then has forgotten it.' He soon learned a lot more about very different sorts of Jews, and came to admire East European Jews in particular, but he never thought assimilation was either a simple solution or a major problem. He said to Philip Roth that he thought it was 'an advantage to belong to a (not necessarily racial) minority:' 'To possess two traditions, as happens to Jews, but not only to Jews, is a richness: for writers but not only for writers.' Those 'not onlys' (and that 'not necessarily') are entirely characteristic, and when late in life he was being fÉted and lionised in New York he was surprised to find himself surrounded exclusively by Jews.
He saw no correlation between assimilation and anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite hates the Jew no matter what.
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