Portrait of an extraordinary literary witness

Over the last seventy years, Primo Levi (1919–87) has been recognized as the foremost literary witness of the extermination of the European Jews. In the book Primo Levi: An Identikit, a product of twenty years of research, Marco Belpoliti explores Levi’s tormented life, his trajectory as a writer and intellectual, and, above all, his multifaceted and complex oeuvre.
Recently translated into English by Clarissa Botsford, this volume devotes a different chapter to each of Levi’s books. In addition to tracing the history of each book’s composition, publication, and literary influences, Belpoliti – an essayist, writer, and professor at the University of Bergamo – explores their contents across the many worlds of Primo Levi: from chemistry to anthropology, biology to ethology, space flights to linguistics.
If This Is a Man, his initially rejected masterpiece, is also reread with a fresh perspective. We learn of dreams, animals, and travel; of literary writing, comedy, and tragedy; of shame, memory, and the relationship with other writers such as Franz Kafka and Georges Perec, Jean Améry and Varlam Shalamov. Fundamental themes such as Judaism, the camp, and testimony innervate the book, which is complemented with photographs and letters found by the author in hitherto unexplored archives.
Critics consider Primo Levi: An Identikit the definitive book on Primo Levi, a treasure trove of stories and reflections that paint a rich, nuanced composite portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most unique and urgent voices.
“The first edition of If This is Is a Man came out two years after the end of the second world war, before I was born. I belong to a generation that came across Levi’s books much later, when i was at high school in the 1970s”, writes the author. “A second edition was published in 1958, and from then on, even after the author’s death, it became one of the best-known books ever, read by every Italian school child across the country”.
“Immediately after the war, the predominant theme of the book was seen as the imprisonment and forced labor of Anti-Fascists, members of the resistance, workers, union leaders, ordinary people, and Italian soldiers who had defected from Mussolini’s Salò Republic supported by Hitler after the Armistice.
The Shoah was not a dominant paradigm between the 1950s and the 1970s. Even though Primo Levi was a Jew, and the testimony he gave in his book was about the Nazi extermination of European Jews, If This Is a Man was held up as a symbol of Anti-Fascist resistance against the Germans and against Italian Fascists who joined the Salò Republic. In the meantime, Levi had published The Truce, which was taken to be a sequel to If This Is a Man, a book of short stories that was largely ignored (Natural Histories), and a second collection of fantasy stories (Flaw of Form) in 1971”.
“I came across Levi at high school thanks to a teacher who had been deported by the Germans as a young soldier after the September 8, 1943 Armistice because he had refused to sign up with Mussolini’s puppet state. The teacher did not read the book in class; he recommended it to those of us who wanted to find out more about the Nazi concentration camps. ‘It’s essential reading,’ he told us. From that moment on, my parents bought and I read Levi’s work as it came out: The Periodic Table in 1975, The Wrench in 1978. This book in particular was a favorite at home because its subject was work. My parents’ generation had participated in the reconstruction of Italy after the war, and played a part in what was known as the “economic boom.” Like millions of other Italians, they worked tirelessly to rebuild the country and guarantee a future for the generations to come, for their children”.