Primo Levi’s insights into Hell
I am still reading Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, and once again I am moved by the precision, pace and tone of his prose. I feel as if I’m reading a poem, a very disturbing poem. All good literature must move the reader, and this is good literature and it moves me deeply.
I have read a lot about concentration camps over the years, my first book being that very famous one by Lord Russell of Liverpool called so pointedly The Scourge of the Swastika. I read it in my late teens – when I was 16 or 17. It disturbed me greatly at the time. I purchased that book shortly after I had viewed practically all episodes of that famous 1970s war documentary The World at War. That book and that series always haunted me by the depth of suffering inflicted on many innocent people by opposing warring factions or nations. The occasional stills – the black and white photos – of people before they were gunned down and kicked brutally into the dark maw of huge graves were haunting. The look in their eyes captured by the cameramen is truly moving and beyond expression in my poor fumbling words. In fact I always felt the tears well up in my eyes even at the sound of the music which introduced The World at War. I must find out the name of that piece and who composed it. I wonder was it composed specially.
But to return to Primo Levi - I am transfixed by his use of language. As we were taught at school and college – a master writer possesses an inevitability of language or diction. Every word seems to be weighed out. There is absolutely no padding. The style is spare, grim, sparse and economic and consequently so apt. How could a style that sought to describe hell or earth not be such? I loved this description of himself being released from the so called infirmary Ka-Be: “But the man who leaves the Ka-Be, naked and almost always insufficiently cured, feels himself ejected into the dark and cold of sidereal space.”(p.56) “Sidereal” space sounds infinitely more lonely and moving than just the simple noun “space” on its own. He speaks also about the many “weapons of the night,” (p.57) and further of the inmates’ recurrent and haunting nightmares – telling their stories to their loved ones only to have them walk away without saying a word. Then he tells us that they all had similar dreams. Another collective dream was that of seeing food and being about to eat it only to have it disappear just as they are about to bite into it. Then those awful, torturing processions – lining up for everything, even to go to the communal bucket at night, the smells, the torture of it, the cramped beds, the jostling to get food, even to get a bit of space on one’s so-called bed or bunk which one had to share with another.
Levi describes how sleep, fitful, uncomfortable and nightmare –ridden as it was, was infinitely superior to the hell that was waking up. As a person who has suffered from bouts of depression I can in some miniscule way associate with the pain of waking up to the world – and that is our present heaven of a world, not Levi’s nightmare one. These words move me: “…the illusory barrier of the warm blankets, the thin armour of sleep, the nightly evasion with its very torments drops to pieces around us, and we find ourselves mercilessly awake, exposed to insult, atrociously naked and vulnerable.” (p. 63) What a description of waking up – how can anyone say anymore? Or how about these for the last few lines of a chapter? – “When I have remade my bed and am dressed, I climb down onto the floor and put on my shoes. The sores on my feet reopen at once, and a new day begins.” (p. 64)
Enough said. More than enough written.
A picture I took at Dachau, December 2005, with its infamous Nazi inscription which needs no translation!