Book of the Week: If This is a Man by Primo Levi

If This is a Man - Primo Levi
Levi’s haunting masterpiece.

First published in 1947 (although it didn’t make it to an English translation until 1959), If This is a Man is Primo Levi’s brutal account of life in the Auschwitz concentration camps. A modest 2,500 copies were printed by a small publisher in ’47, but interest soon grew and Levi’s book is now an important piece of Holocaust literature.

The edition we have also includes the Truce (1963), which is the sequel to If This is a Man. Today, we’re only briefly covering the latter (known as Survival in Auschwitz in the US) as it’s not the most uplifting of topics, but necessary reading all the same for each new generation.

If This is a Man

Primo Levi (1919 – 1987), an Italian Jew, was arrested for being part of an anti-fascism troupe during World War II. From February 1944 until the camp was liberated on 27th January 1945, he remained as a POW. Having barely survived the ordeal, the chemist and author almost immediately wrote and published If This is a Man as his first book.

It’s actually a rather short account, which is why it no doubt has the Truce included with it. Despite this, the concise nature doesn’t remove its power, nor does it make it a trivial account of the Holocaust. In gruelling detail, Levi describes the scenes in the camp and what he and thousands of others endured.

Whilst this can make for unrelentingly difficult reading, there are occasionally light moments. One springs to mind – a showoff, flamboyant soldier who arrived at the camp on a motorbike, only to crash and break his leg. Several months later he was back doing the same thing (minus the crashing), delighting everyone.

Naturally, the main focus remains with the conditions everyone suffered through. It’s a harrowing historical account, with the final few days (when the Nazis had fled the camp, abandoning the emaciated survivors) a particularly disturbing example of what can happen due to fascism.

Levi’s Legacy

Following the end of war Levi didn’t write compulsively. Once If This is a Man found success, he followed it up with the sequel and some short stories in 1966. From the ’70s onwards, he became more prolific and arguably became most famous for his unique selection of 21 short stories called the Period Table (1975). By the time of the ’80s, he immersed himself in essay and poem writing.

Aged 67 Levi, unfortunately, fell from his apartment block in Turin in April of 1987. This has been attributed to the depression he’d been suffering since the war ended, although he didn’t leave any notes indicating it was suicide. The coroner did rule it as one, however, and many of his peers and biographers agreed.

If This is a Man has now found status as a work depicting survival in the face of colossal adversity. Similar texts include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Miracle in the Andes, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He’s certainly a vivid and compelling writer, so if you’re in the mood to find out about this terrible moment in history, his work is somewhere to turn in order to find reason amongst the lunacy.

2 comments

    • He should be, although I’ve not come across any schools who have him on the curriculum. I guess it’s a difficult topic to breach. Most readers I know don’t know who he is, either, which is disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

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