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.