Se non ora, quando? – Primo Levi

Primo Levi’s Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?) is the first work of his that I’ve read. It recounts the journey of a group of Jewish partisans from the Soviet Union and Poland, whose efforts to survive and fight back against the Nazis take them on an odyssey across Europe to Italy.

Levi, though he was Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, and a partisan, was writing about an experience with which he was unfamiliar (that of East European Ashkenazi Jews) and lists his resources in the back of the book. He explains a lot of terms to the presumed Italian reader, who is probably unfamiliar with, for example, Yiddish insults. He mixes in unexpected humor and a clear literary voice with shocking violence and tragedy, resulting in a book that is easy to read despite its heavy subject.

The novel is written in omniscient, with the narrator occasionally drawing back to comment, for example stating that he will not describe a massacre because that is not the point of this book. But for the most part (with a few detours into other characters’ minds), the narrator stays in the head of Mendel Nachmanovich Deutscher, a Soviet soldier dispersed from his unit, whose village has been destroyed and wife murdered. Living alone in the woods, he is inspired to fight back after meeting up with another dispersed soldier, Leonid, who has a mysterious and dark past. They journey from group to group before meeting up with Gedali, leader of a Zionist partisan group, and joining his all-Jewish (with one token Christian) band. Most of the characters, like Mendel, have nothing to go back to in Eastern Europe, but Dov, the oldest of the group, is from a Siberian village that has not been occupied, and he, though he is Jewish, declines to follow the group to what would become Israel. (The token Christian, on the other hand, is thrilled to follow the group on their long journey.) Though there are a lot of hints as to future developments in the Soviet Union and the Soviet takeover of Poland, there are no hints about the way Zionism will develop, and the characters are last seen in Italy, celebrating the end of the war and the birth of a child.

Though it’s not an especially character-driven piece (major developments in Mendel’s psyche are abruptly revealed rather than shown from inside), all the characters are distinctive, with my favorites being the above-mentioned Dov and the fierce and cold Line, an independent young woman who fights alongside the men and becomes Mendel’s lover for a time without ever “belonging” to anyone.

The narrative is episodic, but each of the episodes is exquisitely well-placed. In particular, the death of Black Rokhele after the end of the fighting, in a hate crime as they travel through Germany, comes as a shock even though she’s a minor character, because of its placement at a time when the characters seemed safe.

A thread I found fascinating was the interaction between the main characters and the non-Jewish Poles they meet on their journey, with gradual comprehension developing from initial mistrust. Mendel and Dov recognize themselves in a young Polish partisan who, like they once did, fights “for three lines in the history books”–to show that he and his people existed and fought back–rather than any possibility of survival.

Levi creates beautiful moments from the intersection of war and ordinary life–for example, the night the front finally catches up with them as they are celebrating the wedding of two of their members. He also shows his Italian patriotism (and perhaps an uncritical acceptance of the “Italians are good people” myth about World War II and the Holocaust?) with a long description of Italians and their national character as the main characters prepare to travel to Italy.

All in all, this is a beautiful, intense, and very readable book. I recommend it to people who, like me, speak Italian as a second language, because of Levi’s remarkably clear style.



Socialismo liberale – Carlo Rosselli

How do I review this book?

It’s not a rhetorical question– this is the first book I’ve reviewed here that isn’t a narrative. Socialismo liberale (Liberal Socialism, translated, but I read it in Italian and so I’m calling it by its Italian title) is a political polemic, published in 1930 by recently-escaped-from-exile antifascist Carlo Rosselli. While in internal exile, he had begun to write this argument– not, as you might expect, against Mussolini, who had put him there– but against his fellow socialists, whom he felt to be in the grip of an outdated ideology that prevented them from reacting effectively to the situation at hand.

Another problem with blogging about this book is that because I was slogging through the Italian, I read it very slowly and with many books in between. I’ve been working on this one since last fall. So I barely remember the beginning. I’m pretty sure it started with a discussion of the links between and ethical origins of both liberalism and socialism, a discussion of the origins of Marxism and the role that ideology played in the socialist movement, and a thorough critique of Marxism. He moves on to describing the history of the socialist movement in Italy and the ways in which Marxism limited its effectiveness. Among his criticisms is that Marxists see liberty as a conditional, historically limited value rather than a universal value. Marxism, in Rosselli’s view, also doesn’t allow for the role of free will in history, because it’s all about how people’s actions are determined by material conditions.

Rosselli then proposes a new, liberal socialism– in fact, he sees socialism as the heir and fulfiller of liberalism, a view that I share. I don’t share, however, insofar as I understand it, his criticisms of the materialistic and non-spiritual outlook of other socialists– ideals are good and necessary, but they don’t exist in and of themselves. In trying to challenge Marxist internationalism, he also falls into some dubious ideas of national character, although thankfully nothing racist or colonialism-endorsing (Eduard Bernstein, I’m looking at you!).

But I agreed with a lot of Rosselli’s criticisms of Marxism, especially when he points out that the useful parts of Marxist analysis are not the parts that try to¬†predict the future or claim that socialism is inevitable, as Marx did. I also really liked the link Rosselli made between liberalism and socialism, his point that you cannot have socialism without democracy– which is obvious now, but less so when this was written!

I was divided on Rosselli’s points about the importance of moral education. Clearly, in order to get a majority for a more just society, some sort of moral progress is necessary. However, who gets to do the moral educating? Who already has those values? And doesn’t this come off as paternalistic?

Rosselli seems to assume that if socialists follow his prescriptions, they will achieve a majority. Ironically, the party founded by Rosselli’s followers, the Party of Action, though it played an honorable role in the resistance, lost its popularity soon after WWII. So this assumption is questionable.

Rosselli ends with a confession of faith in thirteen theses, and the words “Who lives, will see.”

The conclusion seems prophetic. Rosselli was assassinated by fascists in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of the war.