Analysis of Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?

This novel by the famed Italian author Primo Levi (1919–87) can be read on multiple levels. First, it is an exciting story, with the heroes (and heroines), a roving resistance band of Jews, trying whenever possible to wreak havoc in the lives of the villains, the Nazis and their collaborators. The band interrupts German radio communications, deflects supply drops, blows up bridges, and derails trains. When the Nazis cannot fight these marauders directly, they shoot local villagers whom they believe to be assisting the roving band with food and information.

A deeper level of interpretation reveals the horrors and complexities of war: Who can be trusted to be included in the band? How can love relationships between some of the men and the few women combatants be developed and nurtured amidst death, destruction, distrust, and depression? Where will members of the resistance go after the war when their families and original homes have been destroyed? Finally, how can this almost anarchic group risk giving up its weapons after the war, those weapons which have preserved its existence on the run from 1943 to 1945?

Primo Levi / The New Yorker

Perhaps the deepest level of interpretation focuses on Primo Levi’s humanitarian, compassionate inclusiveness, which filters through this text. Although using a third-person omniscient narrator, the novel focuses on Mendel, son of Nachman, the thoughtful, level-headed “watchmender” from a Russian village whose loving wife, Rivke, was murdered by the Nazis: “My name’s Mendel, and Mendel is short for Menachem, which means ‘consoler,’ but I’ve never consoled anybody,” he tells the taciturn Leonid, who later will die on a suicide mission to liberate inmates from a small German Lager (camp) in Poland.

Yet Mendel’s honest, caring reflections do indeed console at least the reader throughout the bloody chaos of resistance combat. As an artilleryman separated from the Red Army, Mendel “must go underground and continue to fight. And at the same time he has grown tired of fighting: tired, empty, bereft of wife, village, friends. He no longer felt in his heart the vigor of the young man and soldier, but only weariness, emptiness, and a yearning for a white, serene nothingness, like a winter snowfall.”

Mendel overcomes his feelings of apathy toward war to become Dov’s “lieutenant,” although ranks in this band have no official military meaning. Yet he does not value killing: “Only by killing a German can I manage to persuade the other Germans that I’m a man. And yet we have a law that says: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ” This he explains to Piotr, a clever combatant and Orthodox Christian who likes this band of Jews and even decides to accompany them to Palestine after the war. Levi’s humanistic inclusiveness is shown in the band’s esteem for Piotr and their acceptance of his desire to remain with them despite his not being a Jew.

Levi’s compassion for all good men is further demonstrated when he introduces a 23-year-old Polish medical student turned partisan: Edek. Ancient prejudices between Poles and Jews are overcome when, together, the band of Jews and the band of Poles battle the Germans. Mendel reflects, “Edek is a gentle man who has learned to fight; he has chosen as I did and he’s my brother, even if he’s a Pole and is educated, and I am a village Russian and a Jewish watchmender.”

The greatest test of fraternity occurs when Gedaleh, the charismatic, shrewd, violin-playing leader, befriends Ludwig, a German railway worker and flutist. Levi, the chemist, describes Gedaleh as a chemical compound: “In him, Mendel recognized, well fused as in a precious alloy, heterogeneous metals: the logic and the bold imagination of Talmudists, the sensitivity of musicians and children, the comic power of strolling players, the vitality absorbed from the Russian earth.” Gedaleh and Ludwig enjoy playing their instruments together as the war is winding down in 1945, and Ludwig ends up securing an entire railroad freight car in which the band journeys west, making their way to Italy. When Pavel complains that Ludwig is “still a German,” Gedaleh replies: “Well so what? He didn’t go to war; he’s always worked on the railroad, he plays the flute, and in ’thirty-three he didn’t vote for Hitler.” Levi provides no response from Pavel, who must, like the reader, ponder the roots of prejudice in everyone, the power of indoctrination, and the need to judge people individually, not stereotypically.

Levi’s powerful, multilayered novel is summed up well by the band’s theme song, which reiterates the title: “Do you recognize us? / We’re the sheep of the ghetto, / Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage. / We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors, / Withered in the shadow of the cross. . . .”

Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi—A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Anissimov, Miriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Translated by Steve Cox. London: Aurum Press, 1998.
Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage, 1989.
———. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Translated by Stuart Woolf. New York: Collier, 1993.
———. The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961–1987. Translated by Robert Gordon. New York: New Press, 2002. Carole J. Lambert

Categories: Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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