Discussed in this essay:
The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein. Liveright. 3,008 pages. $100.
Primo Levi’s literary conquest of America has been slow, sketchy, almost diffident. The English translation of his first book, If This Is a Man, appeared in this country in 1959, twelve years after the publication of the original in Italy, and despite a handful of good reviews, it sank without a trace. Perhaps it was too soon for Levi’s clear-eyed account of life in Auschwitz — perhaps, for readers enjoying the postwar boom and the pleasures of the Pax Americana, the book seemed too bitter, even medicinal. His second book, The Truce, repeated this disappearing act in 1965. Levi, of course, kept writing and publishing in Italy, where he won every literary prize and came to be regarded as one of the sanest, sharpest, and most sweetly rational voices of the century. There, he was a major writer and public intellectual (who happened to make his living as a chemist). Here, he was invisible — until The Periodic Table showed up in 1984, an elemental masterpiece and a reminder to American readers that they had an awful lot of catching up to do.
In short order, English versions of Levi’s work began spilling from the chute: fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs. It was a windfall to have all this stupendous work at last. It was also a lot to digest in a hurry. Levi’s suicide, in 1987 — there are still doubters, but most agree that the author threw himself down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building — seemed for some time to contaminate the pleasure that so many had taken in his work. And even after the initial shock faded, his substantial oeuvre felt somewhat scattered. The books were reprinted, rejacketed, and published in recombinant editions. Some went in and out of print. The thrilling arc of Levi’s development as a writer — one who emerged fully formed but took years to accept his own extraordinary talent — was lost. It all seemed very random, as if the books had floated ashore from a shipwreck.
This randomness is what Ann Goldstein and a crew of distinguished translators are hoping to rectify with The Complete Works of Primo Levi. It is, by any measure, a monumental effort: 3,000 pages of text in three fat volumes, assembling all fourteen of the author’s works in their original Italian configurations. What’s more, with a single exception, all the books appear in new translations. The rationale for redoing them is, at first, not entirely clear. It’s one thing to commission a new translation of, say, Anna Karenina, given that Constance Garnett’s came out in 1901 and is likely to strike contemporary readers as a little fusty. (Vladimir Nabokov, who gave Garnett’s work a thorough frisking on several occasions, once called it “unbearably demure.”) But the existing translations of Levi’s books were not late-Victorian relics. The first two were done by the estimable Stuart Woolf, who translated If This Is a Man quite literally at the author’s elbow in 1958. Many of the others were the work of William Weaver and Raymond Rosenthal, two of this country’s most gifted postwar translators, and most of them are less than thirty years old: relative striplings, as these things go.
In her introduction, however, Goldstein explains that the idea was to assemble a complete and stylistically uniform edition. The industrial scale of the operation forced her to rely on a team of translators: Anne Milano Appel, Alessandra Bastagli, Francesco Bastagli, Jonathan Galassi, Jenny McPhee, Michael Moore, Nathaniel Rich, and Antony Shugaar. Woolf was brought on to revise his version of Levi’s debut. Goldstein herself, in a burst of Stakhanovite zeal, not only translated three of the books but also finessed the others, in pursuit of “a tone that is consistent and consistently recognizable.” In this, she has succeeded. What we hear throughout is Primo Levi’s voice: wry, honest, exact, compassionate in its recognition of human frailty, and imbued with (as he once wrote of Charles Darwin) “the sober joy of a man who extracts order from chaos.” It is a quiet voice, as if spoken just a few inches from one’s ear. It is also marvelously comprehensible, even when Levi is unleashing one of his serpentine sentences or fusing together metaphorical material that most writers would regard as scarcely covalent. Always, he sought what he once defined as “strenuous clarity” — and from the moment he first put pen to paper, he found it.
If Levi had produced nothing but If This Is a Man,1 he would still be an essential writer — albeit one who, like the plant he celebrated in his poem “Agave,” put forth just a single “tall, despairing flower.” The book, which recounts the year he spent in Auschwitz between 1944 and 1945, is like no other. In Night, perhaps the most widely read chronicle of the camp, Elie Wiesel allows himself moments of poetic exhortation: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.” Levi didn’t want to exhort; he wanted to get it all down, and let the scarifying facts speak for themselves. Hence the passage in which he compares the camp to a scientific experiment:
Let thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture, and customs, be enclosed within barbed wire, and there be subjected to a regular, controlled life, which is identical for all and inadequate for all needs. No one could have set up a more rigorous experiment to determine what is inherent and what acquired in the behavior of the human animal faced with the struggle for life.
1 In the United States, Levi’s first book was originally published as Survival in Auschwitz. You can see why the bald journalistic title was deemed more consumer-friendly than the original, which poses a riddle about human degradation.
Levi was indeed a scientist, whose training in chemistry saved his life, enabling him to spend much of the last winter at Auschwitz in a lab. But passages like this can be deceiving, as if the author were some kind of bloodless technocrat. Levi was no such thing. He chose chemistry because he grew up in an era when the Fascists had hijacked the humanities — when even his high school was under the spell of Mussolini’s pet philosopher and ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, and the physical sciences had the attraction of being “clear and distinct, at every step verifiable, and not tissues of lies and vanity, like the radio and the newspapers.” Chemistry wasn’t an escape from the squalid realities of Mussolini’s Italy, from its self-deceptions and vaudevillian conquests, but a way of precipitating its hidden truths.
The realities of Auschwitz, of course, were ultimately resistant to any sort of rational analysis. Its etiquette, its economy, its brutal parody of civilized life, complete with a marching band at the end of each working day — much of it seems straight out of Kafka, although I doubt that even the author of “In the Penal Colony” could have imagined the camp’s level of professionalized sadism. More surreal and elusive, however, were the Darwinian ethics of the place. The reduction of the inmates to a kind of semi-animate raw material was part of the plan all along, and Levi often felt that he, too, had succumbed.
This sense of shared culpability, or at least universal contagion, is key to understanding the book. Levi was not a detached observer — he was part of the experiment and subject to its soul-destroying effects. The humanity of every single person in the camp was buried, he wrote,
under the abuse received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and stupid SS men, the Kapos, the politicals, the criminals, the Prominents great and small, down to the indistinguishable Häftlinge slaves — all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the Germans are paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.
He was not arguing for moral equivalency: later in life, nothing angered Levi more than the kinky confusion of victim and victimizer in a film like The Night Porter, which suggested that Auschwitz had been no more than a vast, drafty leather bar. But he saw how the degradation transformed everyone it touched, master and slave alike.
When Levi returned to this ethical morass in The Drowned and the Saved, he called it the Gray Zone, and alerted readers to the “imprudence of rushing to moral judgment.” Auschwitz, he asserted once again, was an education in the dry rot of human complicity. But it’s worth noting that Levi considered himself to be morally compromised even before he arrived at the camp. During his brief tenure as a partisan in the mountains of northern Italy, he had participated in the execution of two comrades who were thought to be traitors or thugs or both. Levi didn’t pull the trigger, but he nonetheless felt that blood was on his hands. In a cryptic passage from The Periodic Table, he recalled that the incident, which he never actually explained, had left him and his comrades “destroyed, destitute, desiring that everything be finished and to be finished ourselves.”
Over the past two decades, Levi’s biographers have filled in the picture and clarified his rather nominal role in the double killing. A forthcoming book by the Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto, Primo Levi’s Resistance, goes even further, revealing the extent to which the partisans — sanctified in postwar Italy as heroes and martyrs — had mixed motives of their own. Some, to be sure, were freedom fighters intent on battling the puppet Republic of Salò, slapped together by the Germans in 1943 after they invaded the northern half of the country. But there were also disgruntled Fascists, Communists, draft dodgers, petty criminals, Jews, and spies — including the one who eventually betrayed Levi’s group. They were, many of them, divided souls, as Levi noted in a 1981 poem, “Partigia”:
What enemy? Everyone’s everyone’s enemy,
Everyone’s riven by his own frontier,
The right hand the enemy of the left.
All of which is to say that Levi entered the Gray Zone before he arrived at Auschwitz. It was his own self-indicting anguish, rather than any sort of scientific detachment, that made him so reluctant to take on the role of judge and jury.
The Russians liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, and Levi arrived home in Turin on October 19 of that year. To diagnose his state of mind is probably impossible. The camp filled his dreams, he compulsively searched the ground for scraps of food, and to some of his friends he seemed to be living almost in absentia. Decades later, when I corresponded with Guido Bachi, a fellow partisan who had been captured with Levi in 1943, he recalled that his old comrade had been “in another world.” Bachi said that it took Levi “a long time to feel at ease among other people. He spoke very little, almost always with a faint smile, and he avoided discussing the atrocities inflicted upon him by the Nazis.”
By his own account, though, Levi was desperate to tell his tale. Having obtained a job in a paint factory, he spent every free moment working on what was to become If This Is a Man: “I wrote, in no order, page after page of the memories that were poisoning me, and my colleagues looked at me stealthily, as if I were a harmless lunatic.” The manuscript seems to have given him some urgently needed solace (as did falling in love with his future wife, Lucia Morpurgo, in February 1946). In an October 1946 letter, Levi declared that the camp had been expunged from his memory: “Auschwitz more or less forgotten, apart from when I look at the number on my arm.” Wishful thinking, perhaps, or the blissed-out amnesia of a happy man — but who deserved it more?
Levi submitted If This Is a Man to Einaudi, Italy’s most illustrious publishing house, and the manuscript was promptly rejected by the novelist and memoirist Natalia Ginzburg. Instead it was published by a small firm, De Silva, in 1947, and made no impact at all. Not until a decade later did he begin work on another project (and another masterpiece): The Truce.
The book, which would not appear until 1963, begins with the beneficent arrival of the Red Army at the gates of Auschwitz. In that sense, it is a sequel to If This Is a Man, and the initial pages echo the exhausted and elegiac tone of its predecessor. Levi’s description of a crippled toddler with neither a real name nor the power of speech nor the strength to survive more than a few days of his so-called liberation is almost too much to bear:
Hurbinek, who was three years old and had perhaps been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to his last breath, to gain entrance into the world of men, from which a bestial power had banned him; Hurbinek, nameless, whose tiny forearm had been marked with the tattoo of Auschwitz — Hurbinek died in early March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.
Soon enough, though, The Truce takes wing and turns into the precise inverse of the earlier book. It deals not with confinement but with freedom; in place of the downward and dehumanizing trajectory of Auschwitz, we are presented with Levi’s resurrection as a man, whom the Germans had not managed to destroy after all. Freedom, however, is always a relative term. After his release from Auschwitz, Levi was batted to and fro in a kind of Brownian motion, transported to ramshackle Soviet repatriation camps in Poland and Russia while the Third Reich collapsed. He was no longer imprisoned but suspended, somehow, in what he called “an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny.”
The Truce is also a comedy. If Kafka’s ghost hovers uneasily over If This Is a Man, the presiding spirit here is Beckett, who might well have come up with Levi’s wardrobe (four pairs of pants worn simultaneously) and personal effects: “My baggage consisted of a blanket and a cardboard box in which I had first saved some pieces of bread but which was now empty.” There is suffering along the way, and some of it takes the author by surprise: the sight of an eastbound cattle car loaded with German POWs arouses in him “a knot of confused and opposing feelings, which even today I would have a hard time sorting out.” But much of the book is a lark. Witness the entrance of Field Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, the savior of Stalingrad, who has been delegated to tell the Italians about their impending repatriation. He arrives, appropriately enough, in a rusty Fiat 500A Topolino:
An extraordinary figure emerged from it, with great effort, as if he would never finish getting out. He was a very tall, corpulent, ruddy man, in a uniform we had never seen before: a Soviet general, a high-ranking general, a field marshal. When he was completely out of the door, the tiny auto body rose a good few inches, and the suspension seemed to breathe. The man was literally larger than the car, and it was incomprehensible how he could have got into it.
This is history as circus act, or maybe the other way around, but the author’s joshing shouldn’t be mistaken for irreverence. No book will ever make you love the Red Army as much as this one. It wasn’t merely that the Russians had extracted Levi from the black hole of Auschwitz — their heedless warmth and jovial indifference to bureaucratic niceties made them anti-Germans of a kind (even as, unbeknownst to Levi, they engaged in an orgy of serial rape on their way to Berlin).
Only at the end does the mood darken again. Levi and his compatriots spend thirty-five straight days on a series of dilapidated Russian trains, inching their way home through Romania, Hungary, Austria, and Germany. The truce, the interlude, is over. In Munich, amazed to be on German soil at last, Levi wanders the bombed-out avenues, and it seems to him that he is “walking among swarms of insolvent debtors, as if each one owed me something and refused to pay.” The return home is a joy. But the book concludes with a nightmare that would torment Levi for the rest of his life: in the midst of some everyday happiness — eating a meal or strolling through the countryside — he is awakened by a single Polish word, “the dawn command of Auschwitz.” At once the polarities of living and longing are reversed. He is back in the camp. It is time to get up: Wstawac.
Even as he worked on The Truce, Levi opened an authorial second front. He began publishing short fantastical tales, often in the newspaper Il Giorno, and collected the first batch of these in 1966 as Natural Histories. Worried that his readers might be thrown by the stylistic disjunction — was he a recording angel or a light entertainer? — he published the book under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila. A second such volume, Flaw of Form, appeared in 1971, this time under his own name.
These days, nobody would blink twice at Levi for dabbling in sci-fi and fantasy — indeed, his publisher would probably urge him to write a YA novel as well. The problem is that the stories aren’t particularly good. There are effective touches in both collections, and Flaw of Form includes at least one sinister triumph, “Best Is Water,” in which the most common fluid on earth has begun to thicken into a gel. “We don’t cry,” Levi writes. “The lacrimal liquid remains uselessly in our eyes and doesn’t form into teardrops but oozes like a serum denying us all dignity and relief from our tears.” You sense the author aiming at a poetic fusion of science and whimsy, not unlike what Italo Calvino was accomplishing during those same years in Cosmicomics — but Levi lacked Calvino’s gift for metaphysical frolics, for summoning stories from the void.
No, it was his next book in which Levi fused not only science and whimsy but memoir, history, matter, and spirit. He had begun drafting chapters of The Periodic Table as far back as 1946. It’s not clear, however, exactly when it occurred to him that Mendeleev’s table of the elements — that venerable guide to the Urstoff, the underlying matter of the universe — could serve him as an autobiographical armature.
In some cases, the element’s role is mainly metaphorical. In the chapter called “Argon,” for example, Levi compares the inert and almost undetectable gas to his Italian Jewish forebears, existing in trace quantities among the noisier, numerous Gentiles. Their dual existence, torn between “divine vocation and the daily misery of exile,” fascinates Levi, as does their language, which is similarly shot through with lexical impurities:
It has a marvelous comic force, arising from the contrast between the fabric of the speech, which is the rough, sober, and laconic Piedmontese dialect, never written except on a bet, and the Hebrew framework, plucked from the remote language of the fathers, sacred and solemn, geologic, smoothed by the millennia like a riverbed by the glaciers.
In “Gold,” the elemental connection is more direct. The chapter recounts Levi’s capture in 1943, and then his confinement and slapdash interrogation by a couple of Fascist flunkies. The worst was yet to come: an Italian jail cell was paradise compared with the rigors of Auschwitz. But Levi, crushed by his arrest, as well as by the recent liquidation of his comrades, felt that he was finished. No wonder he envied his cellmate, who had been busted on a minor smuggling charge but made his living by panning for gold in the nearby Dora River. “Straining my ears,” Levi writes, “in the silence of the blackout I could hear the murmur of the Dora, lost friend, and all friends were lost, and youth, and joy, and perhaps life: the river ran close by but indifferent, carrying gold in its womb of melted ice.” Gold here is everything that is beautiful and unobtainable and on the point of vanishing. It is also a reminder that for a chemist, the elements are never neutral, but as slippery and enigmatic as human beings, with shapeshifting personalities of their own.
Levi takes this shape-shifting to new heights in the final chapter, “Carbon.” As he explains, his idea is to narrate the history of a single carbon atom, which spends millennia locked in a deposit of calcareous rock before being liberated, in 1840, by a miner’s pick. Baked in a lime kiln (a distant echo of the crematorium that Levi only narrowly avoided), the atom is carried aloft from the smokestack and spends decades in a continuous state of transubstantiation: inhaled by a falcon, dissolved in seawater, absorbed by a leaf, devoured by a woodworm. “The death of atoms, unlike ours, is never irrevocable,” we read. Before Auschwitz and after, Levi was never a believer: the idea of an afterlife would have struck him as risible. Here, however, is a kind of immortality, one indebted not to spirit — which Fascist philosophy had long since ruined for Levi — but to matter, whose secrets he spent a lifetime unlocking.2
2 Translation is an imperfect art, a high-wire passage from one language to another, with a million opportunities for that mortifying slip. So it should surprise nobody that The Complete Works includes a sprinkling of errors, most of them minor blemishes that can easily be fixed in a reprint. A few, however, cry out for more immediate correction, and many of those seem to be clustered in The Periodic Table. When, in “Iron,” the author stresses the sharp contrast between himself and a rustic mountain-climbing companion, we read, “I was born on the Serra d’Ivrea, a beautiful, miserly land.” Levi, of course, was born in Turin, at Corso Re Umberto 75—the same building in which he grew up, raised his family, and died. (The other guy was born on the Serra d’Ivrea.) In “Chromium,” the translator is lulled by a dastardly false cognate. Recalling the dreary period following his return from Auschwitz, Levi writes: “I had been back from prison for three months, and I found life hard.” The word he uses in the original is prigionia, which certainly resembles “prison.” But the meaning is closer to “captivity” or “imprisonment,” and here the distinction is absolutely crucial: Levi was not in a prison, where society punishes malefactors in what are supposed to be roughly proportionate terms, but in a death factory. He never would have confused the two, nor should we.
After The Periodic Table, Levi may have felt that he had exhausted the autobiographical vein: that it was time for pure invention. In any case, his next two major books were novels. The Wrench, published in 1978, is essentially a series of monologues by a construction rigger named Libertino Faussone. In many cases, he presents a technical mystery and its solution — not unlike the chemical conundrums that Levi had supplied in certain chapters of The Periodic Table. Why should a distillation tower, a huge cylinder filled with water and several thousand ceramic rings, start moaning and swaying, as if it had a bad case of food poisoning? How can Faussone and his crew erect a giant trapezoidal derrick, twice the height of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the raging waters of the Bering Sea?
Like Levi’s ancestors, Faussone speaks in a linguistic mash-up, flecked with technical jargon and Piedmontese colloquialisms. Despite this freewheeling idiom, the book was a hit in Italy, with initial sales of 140,000 copies — about twice the number The Periodic Table had sold when it first came out. Levi must have felt that his bet on fiction had paid off, and he began work on an even more ambitious project, If Not Now, When?, which was published to great fanfare in 1982 and followed The Wrench onto the Italian bestseller list.
This picaresque narrative of Jewish partisans during the Second World War was yet another ingenious inversion of Levi’s own experience. His characters were Ashkenazi (Levi’s own ancestors were Sephardic), and part of his task was to reconstruct the world of Eastern European Jewry that had been so diligently and ferociously wiped out in the camps. More to the point, these were Jews who had fought back — who returned the blows that Levi, in order to survive, had learned to absorb without complaint.
As it happened, the question of returning blows had been weighing heavily on Levi. The early Seventies had seen the rise of neo-Fascism in Italy — and for a man who had considered his works to be an inoculation against just such an event, this was disastrous news. Next came the advent of the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist group whose taste for bloodshed far outstripped that of its right-wing counterparts. During the so-called anni di piombo, violence was no abstraction for Levi: there were regular bombings and assassinations in Turin, and his friend Carlo Casalegno, deputy editor at La Stampa, was shot to death just down the street from Levi’s home. Had the madness, the random mutilation and death of innocents, begun to creep back into European society?
Equally frightening was the sudden flourishing of Holocaust denial. The most visible practitioners were Robert Faurisson, a defrocked French academic who argued that the gas chambers had never existed, and Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, a doddering racist and former Vichy bureaucrat who had actually signed the deportation documents for 70,000 French Jews. Levi, shocked and enraged, was determined to fight back. Abandoning the fiction that had brought him such pleasure — and already struggling with the cyclical depression that would kill him in the end — he returned the blows the only way he knew how: on the page.
The result was his last and most sobering work, The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986. By now Levi had recounted almost all that he remembered of his year in the camp, so he offered little in the way of new narrative material. Instead, the book was a prolonged, sometimes agonized meditation on the themes of Auschwitz — its demonic ruination of conscience, communication, morality. Throughout, Levi acknowledged things that must have been intensely disturbing: that memory, his primary tool as a writer, was subject to terrible slippage, and that when it came to ethical matters, Auschwitz was even more of a toxic whirlpool than he had realized. There was no way to dodge the corruption. To have survived was itself a potential badge of dishonor, or at the very least a cause for stringent self-interrogation:
I felt innocent, to be sure, but herded among the saved and thus in permanent search of a justification, in my own eyes and in the eyes of others. Those who survived were the worst, that is to say, the fittest. The best all died.
The tone is tougher and more pugnacious than that of his previous books (although he insisted that he was still “incapable of throwing punches or answering a blow with a blow”). This unflinching quality was what led Cynthia Ozick, in a controversial review of The Drowned and the Saved, to call it Levi’s suicide note: “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” In her view, Levi had finally raised his voice, had given vent to decades of suppressed fury, and it had devoured him.
The reality, I would argue, is more complicated. Reading the book for the first time in many years, I was struck by its continuity with Levi’s earlier work. If This Is a Man, for all its vaunted calm and control, includes moments of tremendous anger, disgust, and grief. Whereas his last book, designed as a stinging rebuke and roundhouse swing, achieves some of its most powerful effects by understatement, just as Levi always had. Discussing the transformation of human beings into raw material — the ultimate credo of Auschwitz — Levi doesn’t sermonize or shake his fist. He doesn’t even allow himself the rhetorical latitude of his first book, in which he memorably declared, “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” He simply sets down the facts, more devastating than any jeremiad:
Human ashes from the crematoriums, tons every day, were easily recognizable since they often contained teeth or vertebrae, but they were still used for various purposes: as landfill for marshy terrain, as cavity-wall insulation in wooden structures, and as phosphate fertilizer. They were notoriously used instead of gravel to pave the pathways of the SS village next to the camp. I couldn’t say whether this was out of sheer callousness or because, given its origins, it was material to be crushed underfoot.
None of this proves that the book, which was so painful to write that Levi could initially manage no more than a page per day, didn’t devour him. Indeed, back in 1989, I had a furtive conversation with a family member who told me that Ozick had gotten it right, had accurately sketched out Levi’s psychic collapse in the wake of The Drowned and the Saved. In some way, despite having survived the camp and its relentless ripple effects, he had ended up in a spot little different from Hurbinek’s: free but not redeemed — not quite.
As Levi recounted more than once, the guards in Auschwitz were fond of taunting the prisoners with the certainty that they would be forgotten. No matter who won the war, the millions of inmates would be incinerated, the records destroyed, the camps themselves disassembled down to the last bolt, board, and coil of barbed wire. In this sense, the Holocaust would be the perfect crime, with neither a body nor a single witness to be found.
The guards were wrong. The rapid advance of the Russian and Allied armies in 1945 prevented the Nazis from destroying the evidence, human and otherwise, as did the desire to squeeze every drop of productivity from their diminishing pool of slave labor. More to the point, there were many witnesses — and none more eloquent than Levi. Despite the vile revisionism of the Eighties, despite the erosion of memory and our civilization’s ever more shaky purchase on history itself, neither the Holocaust nor its victims are likely to be forgotten.
In Levi’s case, however, there is another danger, a more insidious form of forgetting. I’m talking about the tendency to soften and sanitize his image. The original American publisher of The Drowned and the Saved, no doubt hoping to whet the appetite of an increasingly Holocaust-weary public, noted on the flap copy that “Primo Levi’s luminous writings offer a wondrous celebration of life.” Nice try! Even worse was Francesco Rosi’s 1997 film adaptation of The Truce, a well-intentioned but terrible whitewashing of Levi’s account. Any alert viewer could see that trouble was afoot from the opening scene, in which the Red Army liberates Auschwitz. What issues from the open gate is not a trickle of skeletons in rags but a vigorous, fist-pumping crowd — they could be frat boys on spring break — followed by a pensive, strolling Primo Levi. In real life, Levi was too feeble to walk, and had to be loaded onto a horse-drawn cart for his evacuation.
I can’t entirely blame Rosi for sprinkling this bit of cinematic fairy dust over what is, after all, a scene of liberation. But he breaks the mendacity meter once and for all toward the end of the film, when Levi’s train stops for the first time on German soil. A small detachment of German POWs is working in the railroad station under Allied supervision — and when Levi approaches, one of them gives him an agonized look and sinks to his knees in an attitude of contrition. Here’s how Levi described what actually happened, in The Truce, when he first found himself among the master race:
The men were few, many were mutilated, many dressed in rags like us. It seemed to me that each one should interrogate us, read in our faces who we were, and listen humbly to our tale. But no one looked us in the eye, no one accepted the challenge; they were deaf, blind, and mute, locked in their ruins as in a fortress of deliberate ignorance, still strong, still capable of hatred and contempt, still prisoners of the ancient knot of pride and fault.
If Rosi couldn’t accept the challenge, we readers can. Indeed, we must. So let’s put aside the image of Levi as friendly, forgiving, white-bearded, benign — the Santa Claus of survivors. His is considerably stronger medicine, even in his gentler and more comedic mode, and Goldstein and her collaborators have performed an amazing service by allowing us to see him, as it were, complete.