The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, by Primo Levi

Article excerpt

Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. 233 pp. $24.95.

More than two decades ago several Italian writers were asked to compile a personal anthology of works they judged to be essential readings, to provide a sketch of "a literary landscape and a cultural ideal" (p. 221). Of these writers, only Primo Levi fulfilled this request by the time of the Italian publication in 1981. As a personal anthology The Search for Roots offers considerable insight into the author as a scientist, a moralist, and a humanist. It is at the same time both universal and poignantly autobiographical. This 2002 edition is the first English translation to grace our bookshelves.

The Search for Roots demonstrates Levi's keen sense of the ethical and the social dimensions of experience. In an intriguing blend of his scientific education with his literary sensibility, the text defies the commonly held notion that "to practise science and to cultivate the imagination are mutually exclusive" (p. 188). Encyclopedic in nature, the text consists of thirty disparate tracts, each with an introduction by Levi. The tracts include excerpts from "The Book of Job," Homer's episodes of Ulysses and Polyphemus, Darwin's The Origin of the Species, Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Thomas Mann's The Tales of Jacob, "The Death Fugue" of Paul Celan, passages from Joseph Conrad, Marco Polo, Lucretius, Scholem Aleichem, T. S Eliot, Kip Thorne's "The Search for Black Holes."

Levi's Jewishness was expressed in his selection of texts (e.g., Job, Paul Celan, Scholem Aleichem); yet, he was very much a secular Jew whose Talmudic probing had been channelled into a love for examining secular texts and the natural world around him. His scientific bent, which preceded and continued after his Holocaust experience, provided him with much comfort and a modus vivendi. A wary sceptic, Levi nevertheless believed that the world could be made better by human effort, that the world could be "rebuilt on the foundation of a peace gained through justice" (p. xiv). Many of his selections underscore his belief that a person "can remake himself" (p. 63), and in so doing, "can show courage and ingenuity even in peaceful enterprises" (p. 101).

Because of this belief, Levi disagreed with Theodor Adorno's famous dictum -- which Adorno himself later recanted -- that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Though he acknowledged that some acts were indeed so barbarous, such a violation of moral and social order, that they could never be effaced, Levi argued that one must not remain silent. Though the human condition may be wretched, it is unwarranted to mope around and complain about it; rather "one ought to make every effort to improve it" (p. 163). For Levi, who admitted to a certain "faith in the nobility and necessity of the printed word" (p. 4), his efforts took the form of gifted writing, and in this text, his choice of readings. …