Sunday, October 4, 2009

If not this way, how?

The Primo Parade marches on with the most recent Levi read: "If Not Now, When?". The title, which comes from a song the characters use as a sort of anthem, proves to be far more upbeat and optimistic than the brunt of the novel itself. But that's normal. The book is grim but hopeful; every character strives for the better life they might have, a character contemplating suicide presents it in a fairly negative fashion and ultimately there's always a happy ending, right?

Well, sort of. Primo Levi amazes me again and again. First, "The Periodic Table" managed to hook me onto his writing through a couple of sentences about hydrogen. Then, "If This is a Man" made me realize how much I'd been missing for years - the ultimate and original Auschwitz story, where Levi made me visit a familiar story with new eyes. The experience was quite fascinating (certainly not good or nice, but a curiously powerful sensation nonetheless). And now "If Not Now, When?". What to say?

Merely this: Every aspect that glowed in either of the previous books comes to life here. Yet in the same vein, the book is not flawless. It at times feels rushed - take, for instance, the way it is repeatedly mentioned that a certain group has 40+ members, yet only ten or so are ever named. Events only include these named characters, as though the others are only extras "to kill off" (not the case, by the way). The book also requires a flexible imagination. It is, after all, more an adventure tale than anything else and that's the core of it all. "If Not Now, When?" is a glorious novel, yet it acts like Levi's previous works. Here, too, emerge living, breathing men and women, though this time they aren't real. Here, made-up stories are carefully woven such that not a single thread remains loose. Here, the horrors of the Holocaust reveal and nauseate, reminding readers that the world is not always a grand and cheerful place.

Above all else, "If Not Now, When?" is Primo Levi's novel. 3rd person, full of adventure, love and drama, death and mayhem, fights and battles, good and evil. But Levi doesn't leave it at that. Often, main character Mendel finds himself wondering about death and killing - he wonders where the moral line must be drawn. Is it, he asks himself, legitimate to kill under any circumstances? He struggles with this train of thought throughout the whole book while others pick sides - some declare all killings unjustified and wrong, some say killing Nazis and S.S. soldiers doesn't count as murder. This question, along with other moral topics raised and masterfully handled, aims to present a full picture of life as a partisan in Poland and the Soviet Union. Primo Levi may not have lived this life, but "If Not Now, When?" proves that he was certainly an excellent enough writer to bring it to existence nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. I think credit must be given to the translators too. I have only read The Periodic Table but the prose was so beautiful, and with puns and nuances and double meanings - it amazed me that all this could be translated so well. This one sounds wonderful as well; I definitely want to read it. Thanks for the review!

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