Primo Levi - Se questo è un uomo - Prima edizione, Ed. De Silva, Torino 1947

In 1944 Primo Levi, twenty-five years old at the time, was the Häftling (detainee) number 174517 in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  He managed to overcome that awful trial, survive, and moreover keep his human dignity intact, helped by the fact that since he had a chemistry degree the Nazis had placed him in a Kommando (that is to say, a work group) for work in a laboratory producing synthetic rubber inside the camp.

Within two years of his liberation, Primo Levi published his masterpiece, Se questo è un uomo (“If this is a man”), a chronicle of that period of internment in the hell of Auschwitz, one which is simultaneously dramatic and sublime and which has a brief chapter with the title Il canto di Ulisse, dedicated to the verses of canto XXVI of Dante’s Hell.

In this chapter Levi tells of the relationship which grew up between him and Jean, a French student who was the youngest member of the Chemistry Kommando and who, as such, was the “Pikolo” in the group, that is to say, the one who had to busy himself with the cleaning of the associated barracks.

The writer recounts how Jean and he were one day on fatigue for carrying the ration to their Kommando’s barracks.  The ration was collected from the kitchens half a mile away and one had to return with the pot weighing over a hundred pounds supported on two wooden poles.  A tiring task – writes Levi – but «it meant a pleasant walk there without a load», all the more so because one could reach the kitchens making a long detour, walking for one hour without arousing suspicion.  This job, then, could give him and his companion the rare privilege of having about an hour to chat in relative peace.

Well, that day Levi had suddenly chosen to talk to Jean about the Divine Comedy, attempting with difficulty to recall the canto about Ulysses… fatti non foste a viver come bruti…[1] and  trying to translate and explain the meaning to his younger friend.

At this point Levi’s prose reaches the heights of great poetry.  And Dante’s canto about Ulysses – an emblem of human dignity which is saved and strengthened by the desire for knowledge and liberty – also comes to symbolically represent the man  who manages to hold on to that dignity and rise up out of the deepest level of degradation such as a death camp.

Primo Levi, If this is a man, Chapter XI [2]

… The canto of Ulysses. Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand — today I feel capable of so much.

… Who is Dante? What is the Comedy? That curious sensation of novelty which one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. Virgil is Reason, Beatrice is Theology.

Jean pays great attention, and I begin slowly and accurately :

Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn
Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame
Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;
And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro
Threw out a voice and answered: “When I came …”

Here I stop and try to translate. Disastrous — poor Dante and poor French ! All the same, the experience seems to promise well : Jean admires the bizzare simile of the tongue and suggests the appropriate word to translate ‘age-old’.

And after ‘When I came?’ Nothing. A hole in my memory. ‘Before Aeneas ever named it so’. Another hole. A fragment floats into my mind, not relevant:  ‘… nor piety To my old father, not the wedded love That should have comforted Penelope…’, is it correct?

… So on the open sea I set forth.

Of this I am certain, I am sure, I can explain it to Pikolo, I can point out why ‘I set forth’[3] is not ‘je me mis’, it is much stronger and more audacious, it is a chain which has been broken, it is throwing oneself on the other side of a barrier, we know the impulse well. The open sea : Pikolo has travelled by sea, and knows what it means : it is when the horizon closes in on itself, free, straight ahead and simple, and there is nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away.

We have arrived at Kraftwerk, where the cable-laying Kom­mando works. Engineer Levi must be here. Here he is, one can only see his head above the trench. He waves to me, he is a brave man, I have never seen his morale low, he never speaks of eating.

‘Open sea’, ‘open sea’, I know it rhymes with ‘left me’:  ‘… and that small band of comrades that had never left me’, but I cannot remember if it comes before or after. And the journey as well, the foolhardy journey beyond the Pillars of Hercules, how sad, I have to tell it in prose — a sacrilege. I have only rescued two lines, but they are worth stopping for :

… that none should prove so hardy
To venture the uncharted distances…

`to venture’:[4]  I had to come to the Lager to realize that it is the same expression as before : ‘I set forth’. But I say nothing to Jean, I am not sure that it is an important observation. How many things there are to say, and the sun is already high, mid­day is near. I am in a hurry, a terrible hurry.

Here, listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake :

Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.

As if I also was hearing it for the first time : like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.

Pikolo begs me to repeat it. How good Pikolo is, he is aware that it is doing me good. Or perhaps it is something more: per­haps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular; and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.

My little speech made every one so keen…

… and I try, but in vain, to explain how many things this ‘keen’ means. There is another lacuna here, this time irrepar­able. ‘… the light kindles and grows Beneath the moon’ or something like it; but before it?… Not an idea, keine Ahnung as they say here. Forgive me, Pikolo, I have forgotten at least four triplets.

– Ça ne fait rien, vas-y tout de meme.

… When at last hove up a mountain, grey
With distance, and so lofty and so steep,
I never had seen the like on any day.

Yes, yes, ‘so lofty and so steep’, not ‘very steep’,[5] a consecu­tive proposition. And the mountains when one sees them in the distance … the mountains … oh, Pikolo, Pikolo, say some­thing, speak, do not let me think of my mountains which used to show up against the dusk of evening as I returned by train from Milan to Turin!

Enough, one must go on, these are things that one thinks but does not say. Pikolo waits and looks at me.

I would give today’s soup to know how to connect ‘the like on any day’ to the last lines. I try to reconstruct it through the rhymes, I close my eyes, I bite my fingers — but it’ is no use, the rest is silence. Other verses dance in my head : ‘… The sodden ground belched wind…’, no, it is something else. It is late, it is late, we have reached the kitchen, I must finish :

And three times round she went in roaring smother
With all the waters; at the fourth the poop
Rose, and the prow went down, as pleased Another.

I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today…

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those .just arrived press against our backs. – Kraut und Rüben? – Kraut und Rüben –. The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips : – Choux et navets. – Káposzta és répak.

And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.


[1]Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes” (trad. H.F. Cary).

[2] Primo Levi, If This is a Man – The Truce, Translated by Stuart Woolf, London, Abacus, 2012, pp. 118-121 (first edition in English of If This is a Man, 1969). The verses of Dante reported inside this text are taken from the English translation of the Divine Comedy done by Dorothy Sayers (first edition 1949).

[3] ‘misi me’ [translator’s note].

[4] ‘si metta’ [translator’s note].

[5] ‘alta tanto’, not ‘molto alta’ [translator’s note].

27 gennaio 1945 - giornata della memoria