Friday, 29 July 2016

Book Review: If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Without doubt the holocaust is the darkest chapter of German history and it is inseparably linked to the horrors of World War II. Millions of Jews from all over Europe lost their lives not just in concentration camps, industrial plants and ghettos, but huge numbers of them were killed right away by members of the Waffen-SS and sometimes the Wehrmacht ploughing through the lands of the traditional Jewish shtetl on their way eastward. When Nazi troops crossed the Soviet borders on 22 June 1941, the fighting on the Eastern front began. Little noted at the time and hardly remembered today, both in the lines of Stalin’s Red Army and of the partisan bands that had formed on German-occupied territory fought Jews. The novel If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi tells the fictitious story of a dispersed Jewish artilleryman of the Red Army who joins the partisans because he has nothing left to lose except his life.

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in July 1919. He graduated in chemistry from the University of Turin and worked in this field until German troops occupied Northern Italy and he joined the partisans. He was arrested, confessed to be Jewish to avoid being shot and was deported to the concentration camp of Auschwitz where he survived from February 1944 through its liberation in January 1945. Back in Italy, he worked in the chemical industry and began to write about the traumatising experience of Auschwitz to make his literary debut with If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo) in 1947. Only in 1963 he brought out The Truce (La tregua: 1963) that was followed by short story collections like The Periodic Table (Il sistema periodic: 1975) and Moments of Reprieve (Lilit e altri racconti: 1981), his two novels The Wrench (La chiave a stella: 1978; also translated as The Monkey’s Wrench) and If Not Now, When? (Se non ora, quando?: 1982), and several collections of essays, most notable among them The Drowned and the Saved (I sommersi e i salvati: 1986). Primo Levi died in Turin, Italy, in April 1987 after falling, maybe jumping down three storeys in his apartment building.

The protagonist of f Not Now, When? is twenty-eight-year-old Mendel Nachmanovich Daycher, a Jewish clockmaker and artilleryman of the Red Army who was separated from his unit in July 1942. He has been hiding from the Germans in a barn for almost a year, when another Jewish Red Army man drops in. Afraid of being discovered, they decide to go westward further into enemy country as are Moscow’s orders for the dispersed. Mendel already toys with the idea of joining a band of partisans, when they hear about one and a few days later find it. Because their obvious Jewishness causes conflict its leader soon asks them to leave and advises them to turn to the village of Novoselky in the middle of the Pripet marshes where a group of armed Jews lives in hiding. As trained fighters with weapons they are more than welcome there. During the warm season it’s a comparatively safe place since the Germans fear the marshes too much to seek partisans there. In winter, however, after a failed attack of Novoselky men on German officers attending a hunting party, the Germans take immediate revenge destroying the camp. Mendel and other survivors escape to the well-organised partisan band of Ulybin wintering further west near Turov. There they stay until May 1944, when following orders from Moscow the camp is abandoned and the band splits up.
“… The Jews in the camp can make their own choice: stay with us, break through the encirclement, and head east to reach the front, or else—”
“Or else come with us,” Gedale interposed. “We have other orders. We are in no hurry to get home. If we do get out, we’ll head west, to liberate prisoners, to cause disruption behind the German lines, and to settle some accounts. …” 
Having no home to return to because already early on in the war the Germans have destroyed his village and killed his family, Mendel joins Gedale’s band without giving it a second thought and continues the exhausting as well as dangerous way westward through Poland and Germany. When the war is finally over, Mendel and the others still alive head for Italy to go to Palestine where they want to start a new existence and build a Jewish state.

Unlike other works of holocaust survivor Primo Levi, the novel If Not Now, When? isn’t autobiographical although its outlines are based on true events, but such that a friend told him after the war. For giving realistic account of life in a partisan band, it surely helped that for a short time the author himself was a member of one, though in the Italian Alps, and as he acknowledges in his concluding note, the operations of the partisans as well as their way westward have been inspired by reports on resistance against Nazi occupation. Nonetheless, it is impressive how authentic the invented plot feels conjuring up hardships and little joys of partisan life. The same goes for the characters who are nuanced like real people although they sprang entirely from the author’s imagination and all of them belong to the sphere of Slavic culture or of the (now erased) Jewish shtetl that he ever only knew from hearsay and books. Although it’s a war novel, it isn’t spattered with blood and mutilated bodies like others of the kind. Much rather its basic tone is quiet and contemplative because its protagonist Mendel has a philosophical vein strengthened by his Jewish faith and his past as clockmaker.

The convincing plot and characters as well as the clear and elegant language of If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi made this read a mere pleasure for me. I long wished to read something by this Italian author, but until now I never got round to it for different reasons – which I now know is a great pity. I’m determined to make up for it reading others of his books as soon as I can, notably The Periodic Table! Primo Levi is said to have been one of the best writers that Italy had in his time and I agree. Thus can I do anything but warmly recommend his novel about partisan life in Eastern Europe?

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  1. I too have not yet read this author. In fact, I didn't realize he was Italian. Thanks for your review. I like war novels when they also include contemplation and not just battles.

    1. In fact, this is a war novel where battles are quite secondary. The author preferred to focus on his characters - the workings of their minds, their urges and opinions.


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