I first saw the name, "Primo Levi", in Berlin, in December 2003. The "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" in the centre of the city is the sort of place which leaves an impression on the visitor which perhaps never goes away. The thing which caught my eye there was this quote form Levi, which I photographed, and brought home.
I was intrigued by the quote, and its solemn, bell-tolling sobering warning. It so succinctly, but powerfully explains the importance and power of memory, and the depths to which humanity can sink, that I chewed the simple statement over and over again. On my return home, I Googled "Primo Levi" to find out more about who had written these words. The result was that I read his book "The Drowned and The Saved", which turned out to be an attempt by a survivor, to explain, describe and reckon with the horror of Auschwitz. I struggled with the book, it made me tense, unhappy, agitated and insomniac; it affected me deeply, which I described at the time in this review. Despite that, I knew very little about the man behind the book, until now.
Ian Thomson has written an incredible account of the extraordinary life of Primo Levi. His portrait of Jewish-Italian life between the world wars, is fascinating and revealing. His descriptions of life under Mussolini are - like the whole book - meticulously researched. Italian Fascism was a nasty business, but lacked the savage brutality of the Nazism which overran it. Anti-semitism wasn't at the heart of Mussolini's Imperial ambition; indeed there seem to have been several Jewish-fascists in Italy before the war. As such, Levi was a free man in Italy for much of the war; only after the first fall of Mussolini, and his imposition as a puppet ruler by Hitler, and German occupation of the North, did wholesale exportation of Jewish people to the Polish death camps commence. Levi, was arrested along with his closest friends in a Anti-Nazi resistance unit, and deported to Auschwitz. A side-note to Levi's story is that of the Italian's who fought alongside the Nazi's in the disastrous invasion of Russia, and who limped home broken, and bewildered; a little-known element of WWII history.
Levi survived slavery in the Buna-Monowitz section of the Auschwitz, not being selected for murder because he was useful to the Nazis due to his training in industrial chemistry. As such he was given just enough nutrition to barely survive, and was part of the factory slave-labour force. As the Germans retreated westwards, away from the advancing Red Army, Levi was spared the death-marches, because he was so ill, he was left to die. Remarkably, he survived, and was eventually, repatriated to Italy by the victorious Soviet Red Army.
I was vaguely aware of much of this, but knew almost nothing of what happened next. Thomson, paints an amazing story of a remarkable man who was a husband and father, a secular Jew, an Italian, a mountaineer/Alpinist, an industrial chemist, a poet, an historian, a journalist, an essayist, a depressive, a public intellectual; a prize-winning author, and the unofficial chief interpreter and memorialiser of the death camps.
Levi also emerges as a hugely complex figure, unhappy at home, and living under the shadow of his overbearing mother. Thomson charts his personal battles, his relationship struggles, and his battles with publishers, translators and publicists, and waves of debilitating depression which at times overwhelmed him. The story, despite its many triumphs and startling twists and turns, ends tragically as Levi took his own life, aged 67, not long after completing his definitive work on Auschwitz: The Drowned and The Saved.
Thomson discusses the various theories which have been suggested as to why this amazing life ended so grimly. He concludes that all the theories about PTSD or survivor guilt from the camps, don't do justice to the facts; that reducing the matter to a genetic predisposition to clinical depression is reductionist, and that there was also far more to Levi than simply domestic unhappiness or fear of the rise of neo-fascism. Rather, the dreadful end of the story was the result of the unknoweable combination of forces bearing down upon a shattered man.
Thomson's book is a large work, based on a massive amount of research, including interviews with the subject himself; and a vast array of his school-mates, colleagues, fellow-survivors, family members, and literary friends. Without lazy sentimentality, the triumphs and deep tragedies of this most important life are described. Tragically, of course, despite the complexities of the narrative, and the many strands to the story; the narrative of Levi's life never escapes the horror and evil of Auschwitz. It was there where so many of the people Levi loved perished and it was the grotesque debasement of humanity in the Nazi camps which marked him for life. Yet, it was also this deeply traumatic experience which made him a writer of international importance, and made him the definitive voice of remembrance; his life's greatest work.
This is not an easy read, but it is a very moving one. Thomson walks the reader through decades of Primo Levi's life, bringing him so alive in the reader's mind; that the final tragedy is keenly felt.