Primo Levi's Divine Comedy

By Jochnowitz, George | Midstream, March-April 2008 | Go to article overview
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Primo Levi's Divine Comedy


Jochnowitz, George, Midstream


Both Dante Alighieri and Primo Levi went to hell and returned to write about it. There is even a book entitled A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz by Risa B. Sodi (1990). Levi went to a very real hell on earth, Auschwitz, which he survived and described in his book called, in different editions, Survival in Auschwitz or If This Is a Man (Se questo e un uomo in the original Italian). Dante went to hell as he imagined it and wrote about it in the "Inferno," the first third of his Divine Comedy, a three-part epic poem, which Dante simply named Commedia.

Neither Dante's nor Levi's description of their respective hells is at all comical. Perhaps Dante chose the name Commedia because in the 13th century, only comedies were written in the local dialect; serious works were written in Latin. Dante's epic poem was considered so great that his younger contemporary, Boccaccio, added the word Divina to its title. It was this work of Dante's, more than any other, that helped to establish Italian as a standard language.

In contrast, A Tranquil Star, the work under consideration here, unlike most of Levi's other writings, includes sections that are decidedly comical. An obvious example is his story "Censorship in Bitinia." The leaders of the fictional country Bitinia found that human censors developed psychological problems. They switched to mechanical censorship, but that led to errors. They trained dogs, horses, and monkeys to do the job, but these animals "were too intelligent and sensitive." Finally they found the answer: chickens. The story ends with the words "approved by the censor," followed by the signature-the footprint-of a chicken.

On the surface the story is silly, but Levi had experienced the horrors of totalitarianism. The fear of dictatorship seems to lurk behind the fantasy and humor of his writing. Repression of any kind is dangerous, potentially murderous. At the same time, it is stupid. The chickens who carried out this policy were birdbrains, literally. The human monsters like Hitler and Pol Pot who caused the enormous suffering brought about by the tyranny they inflicted were idiots--figurative birdbrains-who slaughtered millions of innocents, and by doing so, brought about the end of their own regimes.

The suffering in Dante's "Inferno" is eternal, and so, if we believe in hell, is even worse than what Hitler did. I have always suspected that Dante's Divine Comedy was a hidden attack on the idea of damnation and perhaps even on Christianity. Dante could not possibly have made this clear; he would have been burned at the stake had he done so. Maybe he hoped that seven centuries after he wrote, people would read him and understand that hell cannot be justified. His "Inferno" is very much more vivid and convincing than the remaining (and less popular) parts of his Divine Comedy, "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso." Was he trying to show that Christianity is merciless? We will never know.

The suffering Levi described in his Survival in Auschwitz is in no way cryptic or allegorical. Its message is unambiguous. The stories we read in A Tranquil Star are different. They are quite varied, but are written in a wry style. One of them, "Fra Diavolo on the Po," is actually autobiographical. It was published in December of 1986 and is the most recent of all the works in this collection. It is about how he was kicked out of military service in 1938 because he was a Jew and then asked, in 1945, to report for service. He told them he had been in Auschwitz and was asked to show documentation. The only document he had was the tattoo on his arm. He was eventually declared unfit for service. The whole story is told in an amusing style and is quite different from the sobriety of his other autobiographical works.

The remainder of the book is fiction. The oldest story, written in 1949, is a what-if account, a tale of something that didn't happen when Levi was captured by the Nazis.

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