Thursday, January 21, 2010

If this is a Man

During my morning commute this week I've been reading Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo (If This is a Man), his eyewitness account of life and death in Auschwitz. This morning, sitting alone in a railroad car, I found myself shaken to the core by a chapter, "Il Canto di Ulisse", in which Levi remembers the morning when he and a young man, Jean, managed to forget for an hour who they were (slaves with numbers for names) and where they were (Hell).  "Per un momento, ho dimenticato chi sono e dove sono." No summary can do justice to Levi's own account of his struggle to remember, to summon Dante's words, and to translate them into his faltering French. Here's how François Ost retells the incident:

"The scene takes place at Auschwitz in June 1944. In the concentration camp world created by the triumphant Nazis, those who are not yet dead are already denatured, reduced to beasts of burden, robbed of their humanity. The Lager is scientifically organized barbarism, a programmed return to the primitive state. What is even more unbearable than the physical suffering is the unrelieved fear and the struggle of each individual against all the rest. On this particular morning, Primo Levi is on soup duty: he is responsible with Jean for going to fetch the heavy 50-kilo pot. On their way to the kitchen, the miracle occurs. The words of Dante's Divine Comedy float into his mind: scraps of text, isolated lines followed by others, rescued from oblivion by the assonance of the rhyme. So it is that the Italian Primo sets about translating Dante, as best he can, for the Frenchman Jean. The translation is rough and ready, his memory is faulty, and prose renders only dimply the magic of poetry. Yet it is very important for Primo that Jean should understand: the Divine Comedy has suddenly become essential, the only thing now that matters. 'I would have given away my ration of soup to recover the missing stanza', writes Levi. But Jean had understood the message; he listens and asks Levi to repeat certain passages. Both, for a brief moment, forget where they are and who they are. For Levi, too, it is as if he is hearing Dante's verses for the first time, as if they contained an essential and still unknown revelation. But it is already time to conclude: the two men have reached their destination. There is just time for three more lines: 'Considerate la vostra semenza, fatti no faste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza' (Consider your origins: you were not made to live like brutes but to pursue science and virtue.)"

Ost neglects to say that Jean was that rarest of beings in this place, where the distinction between good and evil had lost its meaning: a good man. Jean's willingness to listen to and his effort to understand Levi's faulty yet powerfully life-affirming translation was an act of generosity. Levi describes Jean, who enjoyed a privileged position in the camp as a gopher, thus: "Era scaltro e fisicamente robusto, e insieme mite e amichevole: pur conducendo con tenacia e coraggio la sua segreta lotta individuale contro il campo e contro la morte, non trascurava di mantenere rapporti umani coi compagni meno privilegiati…" (In Stuart Wolf's translation: He was  shrewd and physically robust, and at the same time gentle  and friendly : although he continued his secret individual  struggle against the camp and against death, he did not  neglect his human relationships with less privileged  comrades…)

The quote is from François Ost, "The Heritage and Future Generations," in Jérôme Bindé, ed., Keys to the 21st Century, Berghahn Books, 2001, pp. 152-53.

The power and terrifying beauty of Levi's language takes my breath away. If Se questo è un uomo were the only book that was ever written in Italian, it would be worth the years of effort it takes to learn this language. But the more I read and hear Italian, the more I think that it is the most beautiful creation to have sprung, and grown, from the human soul.

Rambling around on the internet, I've just stumbled on an English translation of this book. Scroll down to the Canto of Ulysses.