LEVI – SAINT FLAWED BY DEATH
April 19, 2000
PRIMO Levi committed suicide a few days before Passover, 13 years ago. It was one of the most shocking deaths of the century.
To millions he symbolised the resilience of the human spirit. Primo Levi had survived to bear witness to the Shoah. It was unthinkable that he should lack the courage to see the task through to the end.
A measure of how profoundly his death seemed to betray his life is that Levi’s biography not only ends with his self-slaughter, it begins with it.
Myriam Annissimov opens the introduction of Tragedy of an Optimist (Aurum Press, £12.99) with these words: ”On 11 April 1987 Primo Levi plunged down the stairwell of the house where he was born and had always lived . . .”
The first chapter repeats: ”One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.” And 400 pages later we are standing at the same spot, with Levi’s wife Lucia, staring down at the broken body: ”Primo Levi left no message for his friends and family . . . (Some of them) have always refused to believe it was suicide.”
Suicide. The word rings from start to finish, as if his felo de se was commanded by destiny. His message of hope, that man can endure anything, is shunted aside.
His story of horror, the most detailed account ever recorded of life inside Auschwitz, is relegated to the status of disputed evidence — locked airlessly in self-sealing plastic bags and exhibited on the wooden tables of Britain’s libel courts, for self-serving historians to sneer over.
Suicide. So the Nazis got their man. A great, noble life is reduced to broken bones at the end.
I don’t believe that. I have read Levi’s story in many different ways. He told it himself, in prose as sharp as a shard of glass, in possessed, compulsive detail, clutching the reader’s arm and slashing at it with his words.
It was retold, in lurid and gory splashes, by thousands of ghoulish journalists who seized on books such as The Truce and If This Is A Man, and turned them into the pornography of the camps.
Now it is told again by Annissimov, who is so careful not to glorify the unspeakable that she gives equal weight to the casual selection of gas chamber victims by an SS officer, and the theft of a tin of salted herring.
When I first heard of Levi’s suicide, I supposed he had given way to the inevitable.
The liberation had come in time to postpone his death sentence, but not to save his life — Soviet troops who marched into the camp had apparently sentenced him to a lifetime of guilt.
He and the other survivors did not even deserve the title of ‘witnesses’, he felt — the true witnesses were the dead, the drowned, the ghosts who whispered in the night, ”I haven’t dispossessed anyone, haven’t usurped anyone’s bread”.
We revered Levi not only because he lived through Auschwitz and dared to speak of it, but because he acknowledged his depression and trauma. He was scarred — tattooed and bruised on the outside, carved to ribbons on the inside.
He forced himself on, dragging his self-loathing and his desperation step-by-step, word-by-word.
”Finding no answer to explain why he had survived when others had died,” writes Annissimov, ”he arrived at the deluded conclusion that ‘the worst survived — that is, the fittest; the best all died’.”
It is impossible to imagine the strength and goodness this man must have possessed, to overcome his demons every day.
To find greater strength, to marry and to pursue an outstanding career as a chemist, and to tell his story over and over.
For a long time, nobody listened. Until the 1970s, Levi was unknown outside Italy, though by his death he was regarded as a future Nobel Laureate (for literature? for peace?) But in the 90s, with his work helping to propel the Shoah to the forefront of human rights debate, through Hollywood triumphs such as Schindler’s List, Levi has become an icon. A saint. But a saint flawed by his death, a kind of delayed martyrdom.
I repeat — I do not believe the Nazis killed Primo Levi. It is evident that he was tormented by fears for his health and a morbid terror of cancer, provoked by his mother’s illness.
It is evident too that for weeks Levi had been in the grip of suicidal depression, not for the first time, and that he was fighting it with his usual weapon, the single step. From this step to the next. This word to the next.
Uri Geller’s novels Dead Cold and Ella are published by Headline at £5.99. Mind Medicine is published by Element at £20.
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