If This Is A Man/The Truce were written by Primo Levi, first published in 1979 and first read by me in 2006. Levi was an Italian chemist who is most famous for his accounts of being a prisoner in Auschwitz, the concentration camp synonymous with the Holocaust. After his imprisonment he returned to his profession but also had a successful career as an author. If This Is A Man was his first book, The Truce followed a few years afterwards; both are memoirs, the first detailing his experiences in Auschwitz and the second his long journey home to Italy after the war.
Of all the Ten Favourite Books this was the one that I was least looking forward to tackling again. The first time I read it I had to put it down several times to cry and to come to terms with what Levi described. It’s a brave book: honest, unflinching, non-judgmental yet unsparing in its detail of inconceivable atrocities. Levi’s intention was to ‘bear witness’; the facts would speak for themselves, any emotional embellishment was unnecessary, insulting and belitting.
Yet the books that Levi wrote were emotionally devastating. He fully realised his creative objective which was to record events as they happened with the minimum of judgement or hatred. The book details the horror of the Holocaust: the unimaginable cruelty, the daily threat of death, the starvation and sickness, the elimination of hope, the reduction of every human being to their most basic animal instinct. Some survived and felt forever guilty for it, some capitulated, unable to withstand the everyday degradation. Nobody won.
Levi died in 1987, forty-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz. Whether he committed suicide or had an accident has been the subject of dispute. In the last pages of The Truce it becomes apparent that Auschwitz affected every day of Levi’s life thereafter. He talks about his ‘dream within a dream’: in his dreams he experienced happiness and contentment with his family in ‘the green countryside’ but his idyll collapsed and disintegrated and he was back in the camp, alone in the centre of a chaotic desperate void. In his dreams, his contentment with his family was the dream, and the camp was the reality he could never escape from.
Look, this isn’t a book that most people will get enjoyment out of, it’s not a feel-good book, it’s certainly not a festive Christmas read and so it’s odd to review it at this time of year, but this is a book that everyone needs to read. After the evidence of genocide in the Second World War came to light, the world was appalled and vowed to never let it happen again, but yet our recent history shows us that we have not learned our lesson: Rwanda, Syria, Palestine, Bosnia. Perhaps if occasionally we decide to read books that are challenging, emotionally disturbing, unpleasant, we can learn something valuable about ourselves and others.