Tuesday, 28 October 2014

If Not Now, When? - Primo Levi


I was astonished to learn that this was Levi's only novel written at the end of his career.  I remember him as an iconic writer, in many ways the spokesman for all Holocaust survivors, and had assumed that at least some of his many books were fiction.

Levi was an Italian Jew but his hero here is a Russian Jew.  Mendel has become detached from his unit of the Red Army.  For a year he has been wandering alone through the vast Russian landscape.  Then he is joined by Leonid, a paratrooper who has escaped from the German lager at Smolensk.  Leonid, too, is Jewish, but is keen to hide the fact, a recurring theme of the book.  They decide to wander on together - and wander is the word; they have no plan, no goal.  They meet up with various others in the same predicament, until they come upon the predominantly Jewish partisan troop led by the quixotic Gedaleh.  This becomes their family.  They share the troop's Jewishness and adopt their aim of finding a way to Israel.  Instead of trying to avoid the war, they begin to attack the Germans.

A fascinating and truly moving book, all the more so because the debutante novelist turns out to be a master storyteller.  He doesn't wallow in the horror of the Holocaust but finds green shoots of humanity and hope sprouting from the horror.

It is a disgrace that this is not on the A-level syllabus every year.

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