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If Not Now, When? (1982)
by Primo Levi
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"Each of them, man or woman, had a different story behind him… If the war and three terrible winters had left them the time and breath, each should have mourned a hundred dead." (pg. 131)
It's a semi-regular feature of my reading life that when I finally get around to reading a book that's been on my shelf for a while, I fall in love with it and chastise myself for leaving it so long. But even allowing for this, the emergence of this quirk once again when reading Primo Levi's If Not Now, When? seemed almost ridiculous. This book has been unread on my shelf for almost ten years, after I bought it on a whim in a charity shop while killing time before a nearby job interview in 2013. Since then, it's never made its way to the top of my ever-expanding reading list, even though – being rejected for that job, and many others – I often found myself with time on my hands. But something in my brain aligned for me in recent days and I pulled the book down from my shelf and thought: if not now, when?
It was, as I said, ridiculous: not only the vast length of time between buying it and reading it, but that my enjoyment of it was also outsized. While I'd always been fairly confident that the book would have quality (even though it never pushed its way up my reading list, I'd never really considered re-donating it to the charity shop either), I'd never really expected to be charmed by it. I imagined it would be painful and relentless, filled with carnage and atrocity. Brutal and wearying, but solemn and essential. In short, it would be Holocaust literature.
So it was a great surprise when If Not Now, When? humbly abdicated most of the bleak tropes of Holocaust writing in favour of something more hopeful, adventurous and, surprisingly, fun. It's a breath of fresh air in a sub-genre that usually has just the one mould to pour into. This is not to say that the novel is a romp, or that it sanitises the atrocities endured by the Jews in World War Two. Primo Levi was himself a survivor of Auschwitz, and the novel has its brutalities, and writes them without gloss. But it also has some indefinable warmth at its core, even if the people of its story have had their outer layers flayed into a cold and toughened shell.
This warmth, perhaps, is Palestine. The novel follows a ragtag band of mostly Jewish partisans as they travel through the German-occupied territories of eastern Europe towards Italy, with a vague dream of starting anew in Palestine. The book is tender and epic – there are various characters joining and leaving the band, various groups and cliques forming and breaking; there are battles and ambushes, sabotage missions and foraging expeditions. The plot, insofar as there is one, is to "shoot the Germans, as long as there are any left, and then go to the land of Israel and plant trees" (pg. 213). Rather than Elie Wiesel or Schindler's List, Primo Levi's novel felt closer to early post-apocalyptic fiction like Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. It shares their same animating principle: people trying to rebuild a community when their world has been destroyed by an unfathomable holocaust – there, nuclear armageddon or global pandemic, but here, the actual Holocaust.
The most engrossing elements of the book are driven by this same anima. Our band of partisans mesh well with one another: there is conflict and compassion, and each character brings their qualities and their hindrances. "It doesn't make much sense to say that one man is worth more than another," Mendel, the closest we have to a protagonist, says at one point. "One man can be stronger than another but less wise… a man can be very good at his job, and worthless if you set him to do some other job" (pg. 92). In this, Levi not only solidifies the bond of his partisan band but refutes the destructive racial absolutism of their Nazi enemies. The book develops what we might now call in fiction a "found family", but with more robustness and less complacency than the use of that trope (mostly in lame YA guff) today. "We're assorted goods," the band leader, Gedaleh, says with a smile when introducing the band to a Russian lieutenant (pg. 230).
If there is criticism of the book, it could be regarding its general plotlessness, or its tendency towards reportage rather than storytelling. (Though he wrote plenty of non-fiction and some short stories, If Not Now, When? was Primo Levi's only novel.) But this is fine when we are deep in the forests of eastern Europe, with our band fighting, sabotaging, scrounging and surviving. They disperse and reunite; they are distrustful and sometimes so desperate they are compelled to trust. Even if there's no plot arc, their situation as Jewish outlaws against a powerful and pitiless enemy gives the book a regenerative cycle that compels even when it doesn't seem to be moving forward. They are fighting not only the Germans but also winter and hunger – and rival partisan bands, including some who hate the Jews almost as much as the Einsatzgruppen do. Our Jewish partisans hide not only from the German invaders but often from the local civilians who might inform on them, for Levi reminds us how anti-Semitism was not just a new-fangled National Socialist ideology but an ancient and widespread poison. "They've never been fond of us around these parts," one Jewish partisan declares. "Before the Germans burned their houses, they burned ours" (pg. 189).
The weakest part of the novel is its end. This is a surprise, because this was the part that was closest to Levi's own experience. As he writes in his Author's Note at the end of the book, he witnessed the partisan bands arrive in Italy as refugees from the east, and a friend of his worked in the humanitarian camps that processed them. Levi wanted to write about one of these close-knit bands and everything they must have been through to get to that point – which he does, ably – but once in Italy the novel just sort of ends. That ultimate animating goal of Palestine is not reached, but it's not thwarted either; rather, the book ends anti-climactically in the ward of an Italian hospital. It's so lacking in message, so unliterary, and a more natural storyteller would have recognised Palestine was the true reward for those of us who have followed the characters through their trials. And though the characters' Jewishness is essential to understanding the story – they are, after all, the "wandering Jews" (pg. 192) and comparisons are made to the story of Moses and his clan "in the midst of the desert, on the march for forty years towards the promised land" (pg. 57) – part of the charm of Levi's book is that it doesn't get myopic or propagandistic about Zionism. The book is commendably non-politic and readers can forget their own opinions on the rights and wrongs of Israel, whatever they might be. Unless they're actually looking for an argument, the reader can instead simply enjoy the eternal storytelling appeal of a band of people trying to find a home, a place of their own, which can be found in writing from The Aeneid through to Lonesome Dove.
Despite a few flaws, If Not Now, When? succeeds as a reading experience because of what it does with what it has. The partisan band is a joy to be with, whether they're planning an ambush or simply talking while doing their chores in their forest camp. The writing style is simple and rolls along effortlessly. Some of the actions, like the hijacking of a German supply train, could almost be a Call of Duty mission, and some of the quieter adventures, like the exploration of abandoned watermills and other buildings, have something about them that just rests well in the soul. Levi and his characters can surprise us: at one point early on in the story, I was sure the band would abandon one of their older members who had become injured during a long, exposed winter march. The leader stops and turns to the old man – though not to cast him out, but instead to lend him his snow skis (pg. 88). It's scenes like this, which Levi has done so well to draw for us, that keep us in touch with their humanity even as war and genocide destroys everything they've known. The ending of the novel might show its limits as a literary piece, but If Not Now, When? is something I quickly became very fond of, and made a nonsense of that almost ten-year wait on my bookshelf.
A book that certainly is an intense read.
I took my time for it. Partially because I couldn't read more than a certain amount of pages (subject and way of writing made me feel like I was part of it al). And partially because I liked the book. Although that sounds a bit crazy...
I did not care for this tale of the partisans as much as I did the other P:rimo Levi works I have read. I found this very jounalistic, and I did learn details of the partisans' lives, but I was not able to connect with or care about individual characters.
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In this gripping novel, based on a true story, Primo Levi reveals the extraordinary lives of the Russian, Polish and Jewish partisans trapped behind enemy lines during the Second World War. Wracked by fear, hunger and fierce rivalries, they link up, fall apart, struggle to stay alive and to sabotage the efforts of the all-powerful German army.A compelling tale of action, resistance and epic adventure, it also reveals Levi's characteristic compassion and deep insight into the moral dilemmas of total war. It ranks alongside The Peridoic Tableand If This Is a Manas one of the masterpieces of our times.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)853.914Literature Italian Italian fiction 1900- 20th Century 1945-1999
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.
If not this way, how? If not now, when?"
'If Not Now, When' is based on a true story and pays tribute to those Eastern European Jews who fought back during the holocaust and the moral struggles they faced.
Russian artilleryman Mendel finds himself separated from his regiment and joins a band of refugees made up predominantly of Russian and Polish Jews led by the violin-playing Gedaleh. With their families dead and homes destroyed, and with nothing left to live for but to fight for survival the group become partisans. Heading west the group journey across Byelorussia and Poland, into conquered Germany, and eventually to Italy attacking German supply lines when they can.
The novel draws on Levi's own experiences in Auschwitz and as a displaced person after the end of the war along with the stories of partisans he met. It gives readers a feel for the scattered skirmishes of a spread-out war, and the uneasy relationships between civilians and the different partisan groups with Russians and Poles, civilian and military, not always friendly to Jews.
Individuals rather than historical events are at the centre of this book, Mendel first and foremost but others in the group are also given substance. Some struggle with doubt and despair, and through Mendel's musing we see the philosophical quandary facing those who have lost everything and must find new life goals and purposes.
"The sea of grief has no shores, no bottoms; no one can sound its depths."
This isn't a fast-moving novel but rather a powerful story of human endurance in a hostile world that shows a part of the Jewish WWII story that isn't widely written about. Strangely, given that these were the closest to Levi's own experiences, I found the final few chapters something of a let down but overall I enjoyed this novel, my first by the author, and feels that it deserves to be more widely read. ( )