Primo Levi, “If Not Now, When?” (1982) (translated from the Italian by William Weaver) – Primo Levi came out of the twentieth century looking pretty good, not an easy feat. He survived the Holocaust and became one of the leading Italian writers of his time. His writing reaches that rare sweet spot of being perfectly clear while never being simplistic or facile. Similarly, his legacy is accessible to anyone who wants to understand the twentieth century or life more generally, while belonging to no one except himself.
Levi’s best known works are memoirs, essays, and short stories, most of them autobiographical, detailing his time in Auschwitz, his career as a chemist, etc. Towards the end of his life he tried his hand at novels and this is one of the results. “If Not Now, When?” is the story of a group of Jewish partisans on the Eastern Front of WWII. Levi himself was briefly a partisan in Italy before getting arrested and sent to the camps. Mendel, a watchmaker by trade and straggler from the Red Army, acts as our main viewpoint character. He wanders along the front, gets kicked out of a Russian partisan band that doesn’t want Jews, and winds up in the Jewish band of the charismatic Gedaleh. After some indecisive and costly engagements alongside the Red Army, Gedaleh and crew decide to start walking west, killing Nazis, liberating prisoners, and trying to reach Italy and from there, Palestine.
Levi’s feel for reality doesn’t abandon him as he takes up the experience of fictional others. The life of a partisan is hard, and in certain respects the Germans are the least of the dangers- hunger, cold, and demoralization are constant threats. Levi conveys the vast, old, bloodied land-sea of Eastern/Central Europe, blasted by war, inhabited by shell-shocked survivors, as real of a post-apocalyptic landscape as anyone has ever seen. The Gedalists believe in a new world, somewhere between Communism and Zionism, but in some respects they have no choice but to believe, given how thoroughly destroyed the old world is. As the book goes on, they come to see their very survival and coherence as a band as the seed of a new world.
I enjoyed the immersion into that world that Levi provides. Partisan and resistance stories always played well for me, and this one has good verisimilitude and the right balance of survival, fighting, and character stuff. It’s interesting to see Levi move out of his main milieu of autobiography, and it comes at at least a minor cost. This book lacks some of the firmness of the others of his I’ve read, verging towards sentimentalism in places. There’s a reason this work was seized upon by the likes of Saul Bellow and Irving Howe, the latter of whom provided an introduction to my copy, the blurb of which makes much of greatest-generation-Jews-fighting-back etc., not the sort of thing Levi really went in for. Still, a fine novel in a worthy genre. ****’