In 1945 the Italian chemist Primo Levi
was liberated from the camps at Auschwitz
by the arrival of Russian troops. Within a short while of his return to Turin
he had written the astonishing and essential If This Is a Man
(in America titled Survival in Auschwitz
), a memoir and analysis of the year he spent as a Jewish prisoner in the camp, culminating in his liberation. Though the book is now rightly held as one of the defining works of the 20th century, Levi's rise to literary fame was gradual, and after publication he returned to his old life as an industrial chemist
Not until 1962, inspired by increasing acclaim and self-confidence, did he write The Truce (in America, The Reawakening), the story of his nine-month journey home from the camps. Like If This Is a Man, the book is written without pretence, self-pity or gratuitous anger; instead, Levi presents a rational, thoughtful analysis of a journey that was frustratingly long but full of event.
For more than one reason, there is a difference of tone between the books. Quite obviously, the events Levi describes in If This Is a Man are shocking and depresssing, and that book is inevitably grim. In contrast, a journey home, no matter how fraught and indirect, is a source of joy. But another difference is the fifteen years the author himself spent between writing the books: with the war now long behind him, a book written in 1962 was always going to be brighter than one written cathartically in 1947. And far from being grim or shocking, The Truce is a book imbued with vivacity and, what is more, comedy.
Levi's first few days of liberation were a depressing hangover from the preceding events, made worse by the shock of seeing undernourished camp survivors eat themselves to death from the aid that the Russians provided. But the journey home itself is vividly coloured by events encompassing all the diverse extremes of humanity. Levi at first travelled eastwards through Poland and the USSR, the post-war "White Russia", accompanied by a succession of comrades, most of them fellow Italians. Among these are some extraordinary characters, and Levi's description of their wisdom and tenacity is memorable. He eventually finds himself at Starye Dorogi, a Soviet-run refugee camp in the USSR; though this is about as far as he gets from Italy in the whole trip, he spends a grateful two months there. Finally, after many months in eastern Europe, he is able to return home on a train repatriating Italians, frequently delayed by Europe's still highly disrupted rail system.
Levi's prose is carefully measured, but instead of making the book seem austere, this has quite the opposite effect: the events within the book are so full of life that Levi's sober description actually makes them even more real, in a way that will be familiar to readers of The Periodic Table. The full humour of chaotic post-liberation Europe is brought out by this style of writing: the book is frequently hilarious, Levi appearing like a bemused but absorbed spectator of the human condition.
Elsewhere there are brilliant insights into the characters, nationalities and situations that defined Levi's long journey. Reading the book, you realise how complicated every "simple" task really is, and how it depends on factors that those of us leading comfortable lives often forget: You may be liberated but you can't just take a train home, this isn't like being on holiday; this is a world where one's life-span is dependent to a great degree upon the quality, for example, of one's shoes. Early on we read about "the Greek", whose larger-than-life capacity to deal with the problems at hand fascinated Levi:
"'How old are you?"
'Twenty-five,' I replied.
'What do you do?'
'I'm a chemist.'
'Then you're a fool,' he said calmly. 'A man who has no shoes is a fool.'
He was a great Greek. Few times in my life, before or after, have I felt such concrete wisdom weigh upon me. There was little to say in reply..."
Elsewhere Levi describes with great comedy a football game between Polish locals and Italian refugees; his friend's attempt to purchase a chicken from suspicious Russian villagers; and a riot instigated by the arrival of a touring cinema at the Starye Dorogi refugee camp. Only towards the end of the book, as his journey ends and he must consider again the reason that he came into eastern Europe at all, does a more sombre tone take over.
If there is one regret that can be felt about the book, it is Levi's fictionalisation of some of the events. Despite his commitment to retain, and transmit, a perfect memory of the camps, some of the characters and events in The Truce were altered or exaggerated. Levi was quite aware of what he was doing, and did it partly to reinforce the book's message, and partly to place it within the greater tradition of Italian literature. The book's style draws freely from many of the Italian classics from Dante onwards, and this sometimes takes precedence over his commitment to accuracy. These flourishes did not go unnoticed: several of the book's characters (mostly given false names) recognised themselves on reading it and were upset by what they saw as distortions of their character. Ultimately, given the book's serious historical context, these fictionalisations would probably have been better avoided.
Besides this, however, The Truce is simply a wonderful book. Warm, funny and intensely human, it is one of Levi's greatest works. Although written many years later, it is a natural sequel to If This Is a Man, equal in quality and significance; the two books are now usually published as one volume. In Italy, where Levi was legendary, the book is now a set text in schools. Elsewhere it is not so well-read but from a critical viewpoint this is one of the most important books of the last century.
Reference: Thomson, I. Primo Levi. 2003, Vintage.