Much more than a Holocaust survivor and memoirist

‘The Complete Works of Primo Levi’ affirms that Levi was a literary genius whose oeuvre goes far beyond documentation of his concentration camp experiences.

By MATT NESVISKY
August 18, 2016 14:47
Primo Levi

A portrait of Primo Levi taken in the late 1940s. (photo credit: LEEMAGE VIA AFP)

IN HIS first and best-known book, “If This Is Man” (1946), Primo Levi refers to two kinds of dreams that he repeatedly experienced during his year as a slave laborer in Auschwitz, first in construction and then, briefly, in I.G. Farben’s synthetic rubber laboratory. The first kind of dream naturally enough involves food. In the second, he has the “intense pleasure” of finding himself at home with his family, “having so many things to recount.” But, he adds, “I can’t help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent; they speak confusedly among themselves of other things, as if I were not there. My sister looks at me, gets up, and goes away without a word.”

Such dreams – nightmares – were an added torture for Primo Levi. For the sole reason why he ever took up a pen, as he tells us many times, was to bear witness to what happened in the concentration camp.

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