Is a sequel ever as good as its original? Primo Levi’s autobiographical account of Auschwitz (If This Is a Man) is a celebrated book while its follow-up (The Truce) remains less well known. But that does not tell the whole story.
Levi, born in 1919 to a literate Italian-Jewish family, was brought up in Turin. He studied chemistry at Turin University, which was to prove his salvation. The times were unpropitious for European Jews, and as the Nazis took control of northern Italy Levi joined the disorganized Italian Resistance. He was betrayed, captured and sent to a transit camp at Fossoli – described in Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi as ‘a halfway house to death’. Soon afterwards he was one of 650 ‘pieces’ (Nazi terminology for prisoners) put on a train for Auschwitz. Of the 45 people in his wagon, only 4 were to see their homes again.
Levi had certain advantages in Auschwitz. He arrived there relatively late in the war, was young, of an inquisitive disposition and without dependants. He had a facility for making friends that was unusual in the camp. With his chemical qualifications he was eventually detached from the lethal heavy labour to work in the laboratory. On top of all this he had several enormous slices of luck.
Levi wrote about the camp in the present tense and without humour (for how could there be any?). In a famously dispassionate tone he analysed the prisoners’ lives: the exhausting work, the beatings and humiliations, the ‘selections’ for the gas chamber (when a man’s life depended on whether his card went on the left-hand pile or the right), the absurd rituals (like the requirement to have five buttons on prison jackets), the importance of the prisoner’s spoon (without which he could not eat his soup). There are many details that the brain wants to shut out, like the old man ordered to remove his truss when the prisoners were stripped naked.
Oddly enough, the most readable section covers
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