Primo Levi, “The Reawakening” (1963) (translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf) – I already said this when I reviewed “The Periodical Table” last year, but: what to say about Primo Levi? He went through a lot of shit and said what he saw. In “The Reawakening,” we start with him in the last days of Auschwitz. He was too sick to be marched away with most of the inmates as the Red Army closed in- ironically, his sickness probably saved his life, as few survived the march. We then follow him as a refugee protected by the Russian army, first headed to Kracow and Katowice, then to various spots in Ukraine and Belarus, then on a winding train journey back to Turin, where he started from twenty months before.
Along the way, Levi experiences sickness, boredom, and misery, but there’s a lightness to the whole odyssey that animates the book- they survived, they’re going home. The Russians are depicted in an interesting way: sort of gargantuan, big in everything from their compassion to their messiness, Levi admires them but in a distant, almost patronizing kind of way. In the essay that follows the recounting of his travels, he defends the Soviet Union from those who try to say it was the same as Nazi Germany, and does so well, I think. More to the point of the book are the other survivors Levi finds himself amongst- the Greek Mordo and Cesare being the most memorable. Mordo is a grimly efficient survivor and Cesare a gregarious, bargaining one- both of them take Primo under their wings, Mordo almost in spite of himself, and help him survived. Levi reports on their doings in an almost bemused way, and this carries the reader through the accounts of scrounging for shoes and food, the creation of little mini-societies wherever the refugee train rests on its way back to Italy. It’s humanity at its most human, contradictory in every element but still a consistent whole. Nobody needs me to convince them that Primo Levi is great. Just go read him if you haven’t already. *****