The Non Fiction Challenge – If This is a Man / The Truce – Primo Levi

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography, History

Narrative Style: First person account

Rating: 5/5

Published: This edition published 1979, first published 1958Unknown-1

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Levi was arrested as part of an Italian Anti-Facist movement and then sent to Auschwitz where he remained for the last year of the war. If This is a Man is his account of life in the camp, The Truce details the liberation of the camp and his incredible journey home. 

Reading Challenges: The Non Fiction Challenge.

I inherited this book a couple of years ago and I’d wanted to read it for longer than that so when the Non-Fiction Challenge came along, it was the excuse I’d been waiting for. Reading about the concentration camps was never going to be easy so I was glad of a reason to make me pick it up.

In one way, it wasn’t as awful a read as I might have expected. In If This is a Man, Levi focuses on the will to survive and the different strategies that are employed by his friends and fellow prisoners. Like in Schindler’s List, the emphasis is on survival and overcoming so the book becomes a description of the strength of human nature.

This is not to say that Levi avoids writing about the horrors of the camp. He describes them in calm, rational manner that almost makes it harder to take than if he were angry. In the afterword, he says that he felt he had to bear witness and relate it in as factual a way as possible. In this he is successful and the reader is given a clear picture of what life was life. He does not flinch from details but also does not become overly emotional about them. Quite how he has achieved being so lucid and calm is beyond me but without a doubt it is what makes these books so powerful.

The Truce detailed his journey home. You might imagine – and I certainly did – that once the camp was liberated, that would be the end of it. But , of course, Europe was in complete disarray at the end of the war and so there were plenty of difficulties still to be overcome.

The map at the beginning of the book shows the ridiculous nature of the journey, heading at first in completely the wrong direction, into Russia. The journey was not without hardships but they are of a different nature because Levi and his fellow travellers know they are now free. This creates a different atmosphere to that of If This is a Man, a more positive and hopeful one.

Again, Levi details the many strategies used in order to survive and there are many interesting characters – some from the camp, some new – to interest the reader. It is more entertaining than the first book. I’m glad I read them together as after the horror of the camp, it was good to know that Levi managed to get home to his family.

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