Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Moments Of Reprieve — Primo Levi — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 2, 2008

A well run second hand bookshop is like an eddy. At no two points does it look the same. The flow of books keeps changing and changing so often that in it a buyer is always like the eternally hopeful fisherman for a new catch. Is it going to be a better catch than the previous one — that one cannot say with certainty. You might fish with an intention to get a trout but may end up with a mackarel — or the other way round.  The uncertainty of the catch makes the whole experience piquant. And what of the fisherman? Given an eddy, an experienced fisherman knows the watery geography well and where the catch is normally abundant. There is a growing knowledge where and when the mackarels and trout frequent. It is on one of these trips to a favourite eddy of mine that I managed a rich haul of rare catch. Standing side by side and almost new, I found — “The Periodic Table“, “The Drowned And The Saved” and “Moments of Reprieve” all by Primo Levi. I netted all the three and picked up the last for my sampling

Mr. Levi is an Italian Jew and a holocaust survivor. He has had first hand experience of the horrors of Auschwitz and most of his writing is about the experiences of these hell holes which were representations of depths of inexplicable madness when western civilization “descend(ed)s to hell with trumpets and drums“. My own introduction to holocaust literature was through Elie Weasel’s – “Night” and Victor Frankl‘s “Man’s Search For Meaning“. While my memories of the latter are vague, “Night”  to me has been a moving book of extraordinary anguish. In one of my old diaries, I had noted some lines from the book — “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never“. Even to this day I cannot recall Night without feeling horrified, sad and moved. Reading  “Moments of Reprieve” led to a very similar experience

Yet there is a fundamental difference between these two books.”Moments of Reprieve” focuses on the extraordinary grace of human beings in one of the most inhuman conditions witnessed in history. The book is a collection of narratives around incidents and human beings that Primo Levi is either involved or gets to observe. As I read on I started owning a very large portion of the anguish while in “Night” the authorial anguish is shared equally by the writer and the reader. That is the beauty of the writing of Primo Levi. He writes with the clarity of his mind’s eye. Every word is essential and anything that is superfluous has no room in his writing (in this book). John Berger once said that  “The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity.” Yet as I read “Moments of Reprieve“, I started to realise that Mr.Levi’s writing evoked feelings that were tender even while they were described with a great sense of exactitude and lack of pity. Consider a couple of wonderful paragraphs that evoke this sense of precision. The first is about Wolf – an interred mate who plays violin in the Camp risking his life….”A timid spring at last arrived. And in one of the first stretches of sunshine there was a work-free Sunday afternoon, fragile and precious as a peach blossom… Wolf played for himself but all those who came by stopped to listen with a greedy look. Like bears catching the scent of honey, avid, timid and perplexed. A few steps away lay Elias, his belly on the ground, staring at Wolf, almost spellbound. On his gladiator’s face hovered that veil of contented stupor one sometimes sees on the faces of the dead, that makes one think they really had for an instant, on the threshhold, the vision of a better world” (The Elias mentioned there is another brute mate of theirs who has a bloody fight with Wolf a few days before this incident) or the code of violence in the Camp that is described without any pity and as a matter of fact….”For this very reason, punches and slaps passed among us as daily language, and we soon learned to distinguish meaningful blows from the others inflicted out of savagery, to create pain and humiliation, and which often resulted in death. A slap like Eddy’s was akin to the friendly smack you give a dog or the whack you adminsiter to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition. Nothing more in short than a non verbal communication. Among the many miseries in the Camp, blows of this nature were by far the least painful. Which is equivalent to saying that our manner of living was not very different from that of donkeys and dogs“. In the context of the utter suffering that people go through in the Camps words like these cannot fail to move a reader. Yet through the book I never found Mr.Levi breaking the restraint and being anguished. A calm and all knowing flow of words is what one gets to see

As time moves on and newer generations replace the older ones it is but natural that these tragic incidents start fading from the collective memories of public. In the process there is every chance that people get tempted to repeat history. The writings of authors like Primo Levi have the capacity to act as an antidote for this potential relapse. While on the topic… I cannot but recall a wonderful essay by Howard Zinn titled …”A Larger Consciousness” — where he cautions against the dangers of limiting the spirit of condemnation of the holocaust related horrors only to Jews and the need for including all forms of large scale atrocities into this scheme of condemnation.

That Primo Levi is an extraordinary writer and is a seminal contributor to the holocaust literature is very evident. I look forward to reading his other books “If This Is A Man“, “The Truce” , “The Periodic Table“, “The Drowned And The Saved” — both for their reportedly moving quality and more importantly as a stark reminder of the extraordinarily horrible proceedings of a dark chapter in the history of mankind

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