Academic journal article Shofar

The Path and the Pit: History and Traumatic Memory in Primo Levi's If Not Now, When?

Academic journal article Shofar

The Path and the Pit: History and Traumatic Memory in Primo Levi's If Not Now, When?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Primo Levi's If Not Now, When? is a work of historical fiction describing the small triumphs and sufferings of a band of Jewish partisans who fight against the Nazis. They are also Holocaust survivors whose families and communities died in the pits of the Einsatzgruppen. This article reinterprets the novel through the combined lens of trauma theory and historian Saul Friedlander's notion that, in the case of collective catastrophe, genuine historical consciousness may be achieved only through the uneasy juxtaposition of objective historical narrative with the victims' anguished voices. While most other readings of the novel focus on the path Levi's partisans take toward renewed dignity and reconciliation, the principal claim of this article is that the novel succeeds as a work of Holocaust historical fiction because it subverts it own narrative flow-its path-by constantly invoking the pit, the site of trauma that threatens to block the partisans' access to the future. In support of this claim, the article not only analyzes the literary strategies Levi uses to engage his fictional characters in the documented history of World War II, but also uncovers his techniques for representing their memories of the Holocaust, a collective trauma that violently interrupted history's course.

Primo Levi's 1982 novel, If Not Now, When?, is a work of historical fiction describing the sufferings and small triumphs of a band of Jewish partisans, mostly Russian, who fight against the Nazis, and eventually arrive in Italy with the intention of continuing on to Palestine.1 Even before the stor y begins in July 1943 these men and women are already Holocaust survivors whose families and communities died in the pits of the Einsatzgruppen or in the ghettos or killing centers. In my reading, the novel combines action with paralysis, entwining the irreversible march of history with irrevocable, traumatic memories. The partisans do not simply live in the present time, the "now" of the novel's title, but also in versions of the east European Jewish past, both troubled and idealized. While mythic time is represented here by blurred memories of the shtetl, and Zionism offers some hope for a history that truly progresses, the novel ends with a reference to the bombing of Hiroshima, a specific date which marks not only the formal end of World War II, foretelling the surviving partisans' new life in Palestine, but also suggests that each dramatic step forward in history creates new traumatic memories that will haunt the present and future.

My interpretive approach to Levi's novel combines Freudian trauma theory with historian Saul Friedlander's notion that, in the case of collective catastrophe, genuine historical consciousness may be achieved only through the uneasy juxtaposition of objective historical narrative with the victims' anguished voices.2 These two modes of analysis, which together suggest that literary fiction has even greater potential for successfully intertwining history and memory than does purely factual narrative, provide the critical framework for this new reading of If Not Now, When? Although previous readings of the novel have produced a number of compelling interpretations, most have focused on the path Levi's partisans take toward renewed dignity and reconciliation.3 My central claim is that the novel largely succeeds as a work of Holocaust historical fiction because it subverts it own narrative flow-its path-by constantly invoking the pit, the site of trauma that threatens to block the partisans' access to the future. In support of this claim, the following discussion analyzes the literary strategies Levi employs to engage his fictional characters in the documented history of World War II, and uncovers his techniques for representing their memories of the Holocaust, a collective traumatic event that violently interrupted history's course.

Levi's previous experiences and his own books prepared him to write this novel about a world that was otherwise foreign to him, a highly assimilated, secular Jew from a Sephardic family in Turin, Italy. …

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