The criticism that Se questo e un uomo is more a historical document that a work of literature

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Se questo e un uomo, whether more a piece of historical evidence or a literary work, is primarily one man’s first-hand experience of the time he spent in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Levi re-tells his own, personal story in a factual, straightforward way, without letting his feelings of anger and desperation take over him. He notes as a preface to the novel “Mi pare superfluo aggiungere che nessuno dei fatti e inventato. It is his calm, almost reserved way of writing and his assurance that the account of his story is reliable, that makes us question the literary value of the novel compared with its value as a work of historical fact and evidence. On opening the book, the first thing that one notices is the fact that it opens with a poem, taken from one of Levi’s collections. It is a poem based loosely on an old Hebrew poem, which tells the reader to question himself about the nature of humanity, the potential horrors of human nature, and woe to anybody who ignores it or refuses to question it.

Already, the book has taken on a greater intensity than if it was worthy of being only a historical document. The poem is in itself a work of literature (or part of a work of literature) which suggests that the novel has literary value. However, the poem not only induces literary appreciation. It introduces deeper, darker philosophical ideas that a historical document perhaps would not.

The poem speaks directly to the reader, using the imperative “Considerate se questo e un uomo”, and uses the second person – “Voi che vivete sicuri” in order to show the reader that Levi is serious, that it is of ultimate importance that people read this book, in order to comprehend how dark and irrational human actions can be. Although the book itself has a much calmer, objective way of writing about the experience of Auschwitz, this poem reminds the reader that real people were involved, and that the non-melodramatic writing style does not mean that Levi was not utterly torn, damaged and angered by the actions of the Nazis in the Holocaust.

As well as the poem, the other aspect of the novel that is immediately relevant is its title – Se questo e un uomo. There has evidently been a lot of debate and thought over the book’s historical value and its literary merits. The first English translation of the novel by Stuart Woolf, published by Macmillan in 1997, was entitled Survival in Auschwitz instead of If this is a man. This suggests that the book is simply a set of facts recounting a survivor’s story.

Indeed, the book is entirely factual, as Levi himself thinks it unnecessary to point out, but it is of fundamental importance while reading the book to remember that the author himself is the central character in the novel, that it is written entirely from first-hand experience. The fact that it is all completely true adds even more to the literary value rather than putting it into a category of historical works, because the experiences and emotions described in the novel affect the reader on a much more profound and personal level than had the novel been a work of fiction.

The title Se questo e un uomo tells the reader straight away that the book is not supposed to be purely a historical work. It suggests a much more personal piece of writing . The question central to the novel, and that implied by its title, that of the nature of humanity and what a real human being is, as well as being the reflections of the author, is almost a philosophical exploration. The title Survival in Auschwitz does not do Levi’s writing any justice.

It is a bland title, with no suggestion of the novel’s themes – those of humanity, human compassion and the cruelty and injustice of the concentration camp. If the book is a philosophical work as well as a work of literature, it is important to look at ideas and values discussed throughout the novel. The chapter that represents the cruel philosophy (or lack of logical reason) surrounding the entire concept of the concentration camps and the terrible reality inside them is the chapter entitled “I sommersi e i salvati”. Levi begins the chapter by giving reasons for remembering the cruelty of the Lager.

Instead of saying that the facts should be recorded only for historical purposes, so that people can look back to find out exactly what happened, Levi also reasons that the analysis of the concentration camp experience allows us to discover some of the fundamental values of mankind – “A questa domanda ci sentiamo di rispondere affermativamente. Noi siamo infatti persuasi che nessuna umana esperienza sia vuota di senso e indegna di analisi, e che anzi valori fondamentali, anche se non sempre positivi, si possano trarre da questo particolare mondo di cui narriamo. This particular chapter, instead of discussing the day-to-day activity of the Lager and describing the general feelings of the Haftlinge, delves deep into an analysis of profound differences between two different types of people in the Lager. By doing this, Levi distinguishes people’s status in the Lager from their status in normal life at home. He goes into a large amount of detail in explaining what exactly are the “sommersi” and the “salvati” and what puts people into the two categories.

For example, he tells the reader of the “sommersi” – that unjustly, the “sommersi” are usually the people who follow orders, do not indulge in petty deals, stealing, trickery, and generally do as they are told and do not break the rules. Levi uses some examples of “salvati” to show that it is the opposite type of people to the “sommersi” – those who are clever enough to create some kind of scheme, or can steal proficiently enough to sell what they have stolen in order to buy more bread, or to get on the right side of the guards – who are more likely candidates for survival, showing the cruel irony of the dynamics of Auschwitz.

An example of this type of person in the camp is Elias Lindzin. He is almost suited to camp life – he is physically fantastically strong, with great energy and stamina. However, his appearance is ugly and his character is hyperactive, mad, and he steals constantly. Levi underlines the unfairness of the discrimination between people by mentioning that once Elias was recognised as a brilliant worker, he ceased almost entirely to work because he had gained the respect of the guards. Henri is another character described by Levi as a “salvato” – one of the saved, a survivor.

His method of survival is different to that of Elias. Instead of relying on physical strength to impress the guards, he uses his charm, intelligent conversation and social skills to “seduce” people over to him, to make people like him. It is the behaviour of Elias, Henri and others like them that enable them to survive. The Nazi guards in the concentration camp accept and approve of their sly and, according to the social rules of life outside the Lager, arguably immoral behaviour.

Levi shows that outside the social conventions, rules and inhibitions of ‘normal’ life, as in the Lager, the human mind and human society have the potential to be terribly cruel, heartless and lacking decent morals. He emphasises this when he sums up the philosophy of the Lager in one single sentence – “A chi ha, sara dato; a chi non ha, a quello sara tolto. ” Life is often unfair, but in the Lager the unfairness is exaggerated and doted on. It is part of the torture that hangs over the prisoners, as well as their physical neglect and subsequent deterioration.

If Se questo e un uomo was useful only as a historical document, it would be unusual for its writer to go into so much depth regarding the emotional and mental state of the prisoners. A historical work would no doubt discuss the physical cruelty inflicted, and might well mention the effects on the mind and soul, but it is unlikely that it would devote much time to them, dwelling on them and exploring them as Levi does. Despite the content of the book and the amount of analysis it contains, the style and tone of its language are neither hysterical nor self-indulgent.

Given what Levi tells us in such horrific detail about the events and the daily life of Auschwitz, it is at first surprising that he does not let his feelings get the better of him and write a book containing nothing but his own personal angst during and after his imprisonment. Levi’s thought behind this was not to try to hide his pain and frustration. Nor was it to attempt to make Se questo e un uomo into nothing but a piece of historical evidence. As Nicholas Patruno points out in Understanding Primo Levi, the somewhat objective, analytical, dispassionate style gives his writing and views much more weight.

It allows the reader to “interpret the facts within his or her emotional framework” and to draw his or her own conclusions. By deliberately excluding his own passions from his writing, Levi portrays his time in Auschwitz as something much more real. His factual style makes his experience seem much more believable, and the degree of cruelty imposed on the prisoners is surely enough to evoke emotion in the reader, without needing to describe the emotional experience of the prisoners in much detail. Patruno discusses Levi’s style and its relation to his academic background, a mixture of science and art.

Levi’s experience as a chemist meant that he was somebody who could think rationally, “patiently and understand”. Levi’s other works show the importance he attached to the link between science and art. Il Sistema Periodico is a novel, believed by many to be his best work, that goes through the elements in the Periodic Table and explores in each of them human beings and their values. “He achieved in this book his desired synthesis of science and art by placing his insight into humanity’s conscience within a scientific framework. In Se questo e un uomo, Levi, in a more subtle and complex way than that in Il Sistema Periodico, explores the differences between, and integrates science and the arts. His style is a rational, detached one, which to some seems almost like a simple re-telling of the bare facts of Auschwitz. However, the depths of human nature that he explores show Levi’s artistic side. Even his style has reason (a logical, scientific concept) behind it – by writing calmly and patiently, Levi allows the reader to react emotionally in the way he or she wants.

So his style, even though at first glance seems to be unemotional and almost scientific, is in fact a well-thought out way of evoking emotions, and therefore worthy of the label “artistic”. Levi argued that in a ‘normal’ compassionate society, art and science could never be separated from one another. Even though Levi’s original aim in writing Se questo e un uomo was to produce a document that could be valid for historical use, in that he wanted the events to be recorded in all their entirety, truthfully and factually, his motives behind wanting to do this were also extremely personal and integral to his character and emotions.

If novels are often reflections on their authors’ beliefs and thoughts, Se questo e un uomo could be defined as an intensely philosophical and thoughtful novel, written from direct first-hand experience of the events it portrays, with great historical value due to its factual narration style. There is no reason why there cannot be a novel that also serves as a reliable historical source.

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