Review: If This is a Man/The truce

I feel like if you are ever going to read books, and especially non-fiction or books about the Second World War, you should read the books by Primo Levi. He started writing about his experiences quite soon after the war, which makes his story unfiltered. This time I read If This is a Man/The Truce. This book combines two books/stories. Knowing what he had endured and that his writing is brilliant, I had high expectations of this book. Were these expectations correct?

Book cover

‘With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a twentieth-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible. What has survived in Levi’s writing isn’t just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in The Periodic Table and The Wrench, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I’ve ever known’ – Philip Roth.

My first impression of If This is a Man/The Truce

It is immediately clear that this is an important book. But oof, it is not an easy one! Of course, how could it be when it’s about his experience in Auschwitz and afterwards? His writing is amazing. The things he writes about are not beautiful but the way he writes it is.

The book premise

Primo Levi was a Jewish Italian, a chemist, a writer and a survivor of the Holocaust. This book entails his capture, his time in Auschwitz and the long road he had to take to get back home.

Levi spent eleven months imprisoned at Monowitz. Monowitz was a part of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex (one of the three main camps). He lived under constant fear to be taken away to the gas chambers, to die of hunger, beatings or some other gruesome way.

He survived the camp, but it did not mean it was easy to return back home. It took him months to return to Italy. A map in the book shows his travels, first all the way north to Russia, through Europe and finally home. Unbelievable.

My opinion on If this is a man/The Truce

How do I even start? What Primo Levi and millions of others had to endure is just awful. His story makes you uncomfortable, uneasy and at times hopeless. How could the world be like this? His writing is incredibly beautiful though. My favorite passage in a book ever is from If this is a man/The Truce:

‘It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame that the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defense.’ (p. 202)

This writing resonated with me and I think about it a lot. I obviously wasn’t there, but it feels so true and it is so strikingly and beautifully well-put.

Conclusion

This is an important, harrowing and must-read book. It is written so beautifully, despite its horrid content. I am impressed by the way he was able to tell his story. The third part of this Auschwitz trilogy, The drowned and the saved, is definitely going on my to-read list.

Verdict

Written by Roos Bergers