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Bill 27th October 2006 02:58 PM

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi

My apologies for not having posted a forum for this a lot earlier. I clearly haven't been paying enough attention. It took megustaleer's return to alert me to my remissness - in future, I suggest you don't just leave it to her! PM me if you need me to do something.

Tess 27th October 2006 03:32 PM

What great timing, I just finished this last night!

Overall I really enjoyed the book, or as much as can be expected considering the content. I liked how Levy left some incidents to our imagination, stating that "it shall not be told". The story was tragic but also uplifting, it depicted both the best and worst of human nature.

katrina 28th October 2006 05:21 PM

Hey, I enjoyed this book but found it hard going in some places. I think, apart from my lack of knowlege about history, I found parts of the book difficult because I couldn't imagine the characters or the setting. And I have no idea why this was.
I on the other hand did enjoy it, because it's one of those books which is about the human need and fight for survival, and about the relationship between people.

When they entered the concentration camp, I couldn't help but imagine the scene as a computer game. This may just be down to my childhood, and the fact that wars and fighting were often seen in this context, but I also thought that the writing made it seem distanced. Too many people were killed in a short space of time and too easily. Did anyone else have a problem with this scene?

I also find that I have forgotten a lot of this book already dispite having finished reading it only 5 days ago (although that maybe a result of having read a couple of book since and marking loads of pieces of kids work).

LesleyMP 30th October 2006 07:52 PM

I finished the book last night and am really glad I have read it. I don't have time to go into any real detail right now so will come back later and post something I have had time to think about.

My gut reaction to the book was that Levi really captured the sense that the war touched every single person, in so many different ways and that people had to survive on their instincts, all sense of any kind of normality gone.

Added 5/11
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though it is of course at times a very difficult read just because of the nature of the content. I felt that it came across more as a narrative of events, rather than a novel because Levi touched on so many lives and hinted at so many other events and stories that he left untold - as noted by Tess:

I liked how Levy left some incidents to our imagination, stating that "it shall not be told".

Maybe this is because Levi had experienced such things first hand, and had already written his own war memoirs.

You really did get a sense that even though the group of partisans featured in the story had all gone through the most horrific ordeals that life could throw at them, they were just a handful of people and that globally millions and millions of people would have had similar stories. This idea I found quite overwhelming.

You feel that adapting back to 'normality' at the end of the story will be almost as daunting for the characters, their lives of survival during the war years having become the norm for them.

Brightphoebus 13th November 2006 06:14 PM

If Not Now, When? is not Primo Levi’s own story, but that of the Eastern European Jewish, and other, partisans who roamed through Russia, Poland and Germany between 1943 and1945. He himself had been a partisan for a brief time, but in Italy. His heritage was that of the Sephardic Jew and it was not until he arrived at Auschwitz that he encountered Jews who spoke Yiddish and had been encountering pogroms for years by their fellow citizens, and unimaginable Nazi atrocities even before the extermination camps. The book is a homage to them and an attempt to keep the history alive “fighting for three lines in the history books”.

If you want to read a book that is character led then you might be a little disappointed. There are vivid characters but it is who and what they represent that is far more important. He does an excellent job of showing the vast array of persons and cultures, of attitudes and beliefs, of courageous acts, stoical acceptance, charisma and brutality. There is not one type of Jew, one Pole, one Red Army officer. It is not necessarily an easy book to start, as you are immediately plunged, like the main character Mendel, into an unknown world in every sense, hard to place in any particular part of Eastern Europe. His journey, across Byelorussia, Poland, Germany and Italy, and the story, eventually takes shape. Things become clearer in one sense but so much more muddy in another as the allies’ victories off stage are not necessarily mirrored as times of good fortune by Mendel and the group that he eventually joins as they fight for their lives.

The image of Mendel’s wife, who was buried their village in a pit she had dug herself before being shot by the Nazis, recurs many times but Levi is deliberately not telling this story here. When the members of the large family camp hidden in the woods and marshes at Novoselki are massacred, all Levi recounts is “(Mendel) saw the manhunters search them, laughing, and question them and line them up against the wall. But what happened in the courtyard of the Novoselki monastery will not be told here: this story is not being told in order to describe massacres.”

The story, rather, is of the Jews who go against learning, tradition and character, who decide not to “die of despair” but to take up arms and fight. This change was witnessed by one Red Army group, themselves fighting he Germans by any means they could: “In those haggard but determined faces they didn’t recognise the zhid of their tradition, the alien in the house who speaks Russian to swindle others but thinks in his strange language, who doesn’t know Christ but instead follows his own incomprehensible and ridiculous precepts, armed only by his cleverness, rich and cowardly. The world had been turned upside down: these Jews were allies and armed…they would have to accept them, shake their hands, drink vodka with them.”

Such anti-Semitism did not disappear. Russian and Polish partisans continued to mistrust and kill the Jewish partisans even though on the face of it you would imagine they would unite against the common enemy; but they were beginning to take control of their future “The Russians want us present in the West as Russians; we’re interested in being present as Jews, and for once in our history, the two things aren’t contradictory”. Even so, as the war began to come to an end, there is the terrible realisation that uncertainty and suffering for the partisans was not likely to end soon, as a character they find hiding underground tells them, whose group were shot by “Everybody. Germans, Hungarians, Ukranians, sometimes also the Poles, though we were all Polish”.

A young woman of their band is shot dead even as they enter a defeated Germany, to illustrate the point. However, along the way there is a wedding, violin playing, a baby , a Christian Pole so attached to the group that he want to go to Palestine with them, and other moments of human warmth.

Levi, who was able to return to his childhood home in Turin, felt keenly the anguish of those Jews whose “regret for their houses was not a hope but a despair…their homes no longer existed, tomb houses, of which it was best not to think, houses of ashes”. He understands why the group are desperate to reach Palestine via Italy and you triumph with them whist feeling the weight of their struggle, and that of all the displaced persons in Europe, and that in fact for none of them would there be one particular moment of freedom.

Years ago I read and loved “The Periodic Table” by Levi. I am Jewish and find it was easier to read such things when I was younger. For years I kept postponing my reading of this book and I am very grateful to BGO for giving me the impetus to read it, and for not giving myself reasons to give it up as I struggled with the first few chapters.

Momo 22nd November 2006 05:50 PM

Just finished this book and must say I loved it. The language was great, the story interesting, the people well described. Will put my thoughts together and post again later.


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I read this book about three/four years ago and, for me, it's THE book about the Holocaust and the camps. Please survive, please survive, I kept thinking , despite knowing of course that he survived to be a 'witness' and a great writer. This is just one of many reasons that I couldn't laud Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief, addressed to a young adult readership although you wouldn't know this from how it's marketed and reviewed here (as distinct from in Australia). A hobbyhorse of mine at present.


Oh, feel a real prat, got into my head we were discussing Levi's If This Is a Man. Oops.

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If this is man is a fine book, written very shortly after Primo Levi was released in a kind of cathartic attempt to come to terms with his experience. Chuntzy, have you read 'The drowned and the Saved' which he wrote at a much later date? It too is a fantastic book, very refelctive, more so than If this is Man.

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If this is man is a fine book, written very shortly after Primo Levi was released in a kind of cathartic attempt to come to terms with his experience. Chuntzy, have you read 'The drowned and the Saved' which he wrote at a much later date? It too is a fantastic book, very refelctive, more so than If this is Man.



No, I haven't, but now that you mention it I shall put it on my list. Thank you for mentioning it as it would interest me a lot.

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