Primo Levi in Australia
by Mirna Cicioni
Australia is hardly mentioned in Levi's works. The statement "Australia is very far," at the beginning of the story "A Tranquil Star", is a wry instance – together with "an elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath" – of the inadequacy of everyday words to convey a reality outside human experience, such as stars in other galaxies1"A Tranquil Star", in A Tranquil Star. Unpublished Stories by Primo Levi. London: Penguin Classics, 2007, pp.156-62 (p.156). . There is only one other, indirect reference is in a 1977 story, "Cena in piedi" (Buffet Dinner)2Published in English in A Tranquil Star. Unpublished Stories by Primo Levi. London: Penguin Classics, 2007, pp.136-42. . The story is an estrangement narrative, told from the point of view of an intelligent kangaroo, a guest at a human buffet dinner, who finds himself unable to communicate with his hosts and the other guests, or to understand their culture and behaviour. At the end he hops down the stairs and disappears along the street, one of the most elegant shopping streets in Milan.
Australian responses to Levi may have been affected by what the historian Geoffrey Blainey, in the title of his most famous monograph, called "the tyranny of distance", namely Australia's geographical separation from Europe and the specific lack of a direct connection with European history3Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History, 1967 (Sydney: Macmillan, 2001). . Another important factor in Australia's reception of Levi may be the specific demographics of Jews and Italians in Australia.
In Australia there are presently about 120,000 Jews in a population of over twenty million. Jews were among the founding members of Australia (16 British Jews were among the first 1,500 prisoners to be sent to Australia, who arrived in 1788); present-day Australian Jewish communities consist mainly of Ashkenazi Jews who left Germany and Eastern Europe, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century (following the pogroms in Russia and Poland), after 1945 and in the 1990s (migrants from South Africa and the former Soviet Union). The Italian Australian population totals over 850,000. Small groups of Italians settled in Australia throughout the nineteenth century, and a few Jewish Italian families settled in Australia between 1938 – the year the Race Laws were passed by the fascist government in Italy – and 1945. The bulk of Australia's Italian migrants, however, arrived between the early 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s, encouraged and assisted by successive Australian governments requiring unskilled and semi-skilled workers in order to boost industrial development. These migrants were mainly from small towns in rural regions of Italy, which at the time were the least economically developed (Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, Veneto) and had low levels of formal education, usually ranging from total illiteracy to 2-5 years of primary school (scuola elementare).
This meant thatLevi's works in the original Italian could not be widely read by Italians in Australia until the mid-1980s, when Italian departments in universities began to select short texts such as poems, stories and passages from novels for general "images of Italy" courses, and whole books for courses on post-WWII literature. This was a consequence of the re-assessment, in Australia as well as in Italy and elsewhere, of Levi as a writer in the wake of the publication of Il sistema periodico (1975), La chiave a stella (1978) and Se non ora, quando? (1982) and their translations into various languages5See Giovanni Tesio (ed.), La manutenzione della memoria. Diffusione e conoscenza di Primo Levi nei paesi europei. Atti del convegno (Torino, 9-10-11 ottobre 2003). Turin: Centro Studi Piemontesi, 2005. (The title is somewhat misleading, because the collection also contains essays on the reception of Levi's works18See, among other essays," 'Familiarity with Proteus': Primo Levi's Sons and Daughters", in Richard Freadman and J. Gatt-Rutter (eds), Life Writing and the Generations, special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Vol. 19, 1-2 (Summer 2004) (pp.33-45); "Tales of Toil and Trouble: an Intertextual Reading of Giovannin Bongee, Tevye the Dairyman, and Tino Faussone", in Alastair Hurst and Tony Pagliaro (eds), Essays in Modern Italian and French Literature – In Recollection of Tom O’Neill, Melbourne: Spunti e Ricerche, 2004, pp.29-39; "Primo Levi's Humour", in Robert Gordon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2007, pp.137-53; "Diasporic Dialogues: Primo Levi in Australia". Monica Jansen and Raniero Speelman (eds), Jewish Migration: Voices of the Diaspora. (forthcoming, Italianistica Ultraiectina, 2011). in the United States, Israel and Turkey). . In Australia, The Periodic Table (1984), If Not Now, When?(1985), The Wrench (1986) and The Drowned and the Saved (which appeared posthumously in 1988) were received favourably, although they did not sell particularly well. From Levi's death to the present day the Italian Institutes of Culture in Sydney and Melbourne have organised various public events on Levi, giving the Italian community at large a chance to appreciate the variety and significance of his writings. There has been continuing interest from Jewish cultural organisations as well. The Jewish Holocaust Centre, the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Mandelbaum Trust at Sydney University and the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School (which runs advanced adult education courses in Melbourne) have organised lectures and courses on Levi and other Italian Jewish writers. Nowadays literate Australians, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are aware of the complexity of Levi as a writer, and he is now consistently mentioned in the context of other post-WWII Italian writers with international reputations, such as Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.
This appreciation is, however, rather one-dimensional: there is no doubt that Levi's reputation in Australia is first and foremost as one of the most powerful (possibly the most powerful) writers on the Holocaust. Since 2005 If This Is a Man has been one of the set non-fiction texts in the English syllabus for the final secondary school examination (which has different names in the various States of the Australian Federation). Almost all university Honours theses on Levi focus on aspects and themes of his works of testimony. Richard Freadman, a Melbourne academic whose main field of research is life writing, gives Levi a prominent place in the theoretical framework of his wide-ranging study of Australian Jewish autobiography, This Crazy Thing a Life (2007). Freadman refers to If This Is a Man as a primary instance of the way art deepens testimony, in that it is more revealing than uncrafted testimonial narratives. He also discusses Levi's influence on the works of Jacob Rosenberg (1922-2008), a Polish-born Auschwitz survivor and one of the best-known and most admired Australian Jewish writers, whose two autobiographical volumes written in English (East of Time, 2005, and Sunrise West, 2007) are considered the most striking of the testimonial narratives published in Australia for their evocative language and complex texture of cultural references6Rosenberg has written in Yiddish as well as English. His works have been translated into Polish, Hebrew and Russian. . In 1998 Inga Clendinnen, a much-admired historian specialising in Mayan and Aztec culture, published Reading the Holocaust, her personal account of her contact with Holocaust testimony and scholarship. Clendinnen decided to read about the Holocaust "as a reader and not a scholar" in order to try to understand both victims and murderers , because "only disciplined, critical remembering will resist the erasure of fact and circumstance effected by time, by ideology, and by the natural human impulse to forget" (p. 206). She discusses Levi at great length, viewing him as her most important source of insights: he "turn[s] memories into meaning" (p.59) because he describes Auschwitz not only with great literary skill, but also with an almost ethnographic approach, as a society with its own signs and codes: "Levi is the Erving Goffman of the camps, with Goffman's uncanny flair for selecting the detail which actualises the whole" (p. 48).
In Australia as elsewhere, Levi's testimonial works have become a yardstick for authoritativeness about the Holocaust not only in literature and history, but also in fields such as art and cinema and discussions where art is inextricably linked with ethics. The Australian painter David Rankin called a 1988 series of Holocaust-themed paintings The Drowned and the Saved, after the book that had moved and disturbed him7See Louise Carbines, 'Painting Humanity's Horror', The Age (Saturday Extra), 15 October 1988, p. 13. . The Irish artist Thomas Delohery, whose work has centred on the Holocaust for the last thirteen years and who acknowledges Levi as one of his main sources of inspiration, has had well-attended exhibitions in Australia; the latest (Shipwrecked in the Death Camps of Europe, held at the Tacit Contemporary Art gallery, Melbourne, in March-April 2011) owes its title to Levi's remark that liberation from the camps was a feeling comparable to being shipwrecked.
In Australia, as well as in Europe and the United States, If This Is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved were employed as standards of historical truthfulness and intellectual honesty by some critics of two extremely popular films about the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997). Mark Baker and Robert Manne, Jewish public intellectuals of the post-Holocaust generation, while acknowledging the powerful intensity of Schindler's List, state that its focus on one story of rescue and human goodness is misleading, and that those wishing to understand the Holocaust should turn to authors who have studied it "with pity and with rigour", such as Levi and Hannah Arendt8Robert Manne, "Too Much Sentiment, Too Little Reality", The Age, 16 February 1994, p.14. Mark Baker ("Raiders of Schindler's Lost Ark", The Age, 12 February 1994, p.17) states that "what the Holocaust requires more than anything, as Primo Levi told us, is a new language". . Comparisons between Levi's testimony and Life Is Beautiful were even more unflattering. "Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt could peer into the heart of darkness without flinching," Manne wrote in his review of Benigni's film. "Benigni does not belong with them. In his representation of the Holocaust there is no true darkness, no true terror"9Robert Manne, "Life Is Not So Beautiful", The Age, 15 February 1999, p. 13. . Journalist Luke Slattery began his review with Levi's description (at the beginning of The Truce) of the shame felt by both survivors and Russian troops at the moment of liberation, contrasting it with Benigni's sunny, triumphant ending10Luke Slattery, Is a Holocaust Comedy a Bad Joke?" The Weekend Australian Review, 20-21 March 1999, p.2. .
As well, during the past fifteen years Levi's works of testimony have been cited and referred to in a variety of other contexts, either with a general focus on ethical choices in situations of oppression or – most interestingly – with a specific focus on the ethics of responsibility in Australian history and politics.
A young Cultural Studies scholar from Melbourne, Adam Brown, examines Levi in depth in his 2009 PhD thesis, Representation and Judgement: 'Privileged' Jews in Holocaust Writing and Film. In the thesis and in a number of articles. Brown builds a sophisticated analysis of Levi's notion of the "grey zone" and of Levi's own ambiguities and inconsistencies on the issue of passing, or abstaining from, moral judgement. He discusses what he calls the 'paradox of judgement', confronting all those, including Levi, who depict "privileged" prisoners: if judgement is seen as inappropriate, it is at the same time inevitable.
Bob Carr, Labor Premier of the State of New South Wales between 1995 and 2005, has spoken about Levi several times at the Sydney Jewish Museum. He has placed If This Is a Man and The Truce first in his 2008 book My Reading Life, a discussion of over five hundred books (ranging from the Bible to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard and John Le Carré's spy novels) which he considers essential reading. Carr does not mention any of Levi's other works, but states firmly that If This Is a Man is "the most important book of the twentieth century" (p.1) because
it stands as a monument to all those who have inhabited the beaten earth behind barbed wire under various tyrannies: the victims of Marxism as well as fascism; the victims of Third-World as well as European dictatorships; the 800,000 dead of Rwanda; Pol Pot's 2 million (p.2).
Carr's sweeping reference to the "various tyrannies" is at odds with Levi's own repeated differentiations between the Nazi camps and the Soviet Gulags. Yet the references to mass slaughters in Africa and Asia echo Levi's warnings in The Drowned and the Saved, which also contains an angry list similar to Carr's: "[Nazi] imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, and South Africa" (p.110).
An agnostic, Carr examines If This Is a Man – together with The Brothers Karamazov and the novel Silence by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (1966) – in a chapter entitled "The Silence", namely "the silence of God" before evil. Veronica Brady, a Catholic nun who is also an academic and a political activist, looks at If This Is a Man in The God-Shaped Hole (2008), a collection of essays on literary texts which show "a hole, an interruption, even a wound" in representations of suffering and oppression (p. xi). This "hole", Brady argues, is where God may be speaking through the voices of victims of oppression, leading the readers to find meanings not only for what exists, but also for what has been lost or destroyed. Consequently, for her the most meaningful episode of If This Is a Man is the chapter "The Canto of Ulysses", especially when Levi's narrated self quotes Dante's "as pleased an Other" and tries to explain to his French companion that Dante's "so human and so necessary anachronism" helped him glimpse "perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today". In Brady's reading of this deliberately ambiguous passage, Levi can "glimpse the possibility of some order, a justice and a goodness beyond history and beyond his understanding" (p. 26). This metaphysical interpretation is problematic in view of Levi's repeated rejection of any religious perspective in If This Is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved and a number of interviews. However, Brady also mentions passages – such as Charles taking unselfish, loving care of Lakmaker in the chapter "Story of Ten Days" – where Levi's main theme is the responsibility to preserve the dignity of human beings; she gradually establishes parallels between Levi, Emmanuel Levinas' "recognition of the other" and Australian literary texts which emphasise white responsibility for the dispossession and exclusion of Aboriginal people and advocate "a different order" of mutual respect.
A chapter of a partly autobiographical reflective book by the journalist and novelist Anne Deveson, Resilience (2003), is devoted to Levi's Holocaust testimony. Deveson defines "resilience" as "an ability to confront adversity and still find hope and meaning in life" (p. 6) and considers it in the context of various types of adversity (poverty, war, illness, death). She states that Levi's works of testimony show resilience in conditions of extreme oppression, where "to be resilient [. . .] requires a moral view of the world that refuses to be distorted or annihilated" (p. 110). This moral view results in an ethical tension between abstaining from "explicit judgement" and granting an "indiscriminate pardon". Deveson also quotes Levi's statement (in the afterword to If This Is a Man) that forgiveness is possible only if the offenders acknowledge their crimes, "because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy", and links it to Australian calls for public acknowledgement of collective responsibility for the wrongs committed against Aboriginal people and for a collective apology as the necessary basis for reconciliation between the oppressors and the oppressed (pp. 120-21)12This apology, staunchly opposed by Liberal governments for fifteen years, was eventually, and movingly, made by newly-elected Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13 February 2008. .
The need for collective responsibility is one of the dominant themes in A Common Humanity, a much-admired book about morality published in 1999 by philosopher Raimond Gaita. Gaita's starting point is what he calls the "preciousness of each individual human being"; the notion of "preciousness" is not based on religious discourses about the sacredness of each life or in secular discourses about human rights, but rather on the way each person responds to, and respects, the humanness of another. In this context Gaita makes a number of references to Levi. Like Veronica Brady, he quotes the scene of Charles caring for Lakmaker at the end of If This Is a Man, recontextualising it as the antithesis of his notion of "evil", namely the total lack of understanding and compassion for the other. As an example of "evil", he mentions the well-known account of a football match which took place in Auschwitz between a team of SS and a team of Sonderkommandos. Inga Clendinnen reads it "as men being allowed to recognise each other, even if briefly, as fellow humans" (p. 86). Gaita takes issue with Clendinnen, pointing out that in order for oppressors and victims to recognise each other as fellow humans there needed to be some sign of guilt on the part of the oppressors, which was totally absent in the match (p. 51)13On the football match see also Brown, "The Trauma of 'Choiceless Choices' ", pp. 59-61. . In a later essay entitled "Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics", Gaita refers to Levi in the context of a critique of both the "mendacity" of the "coalition of the just" on the subject ofweapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq and the then Australian Liberal government's treatment of refugees. "Mendacity can [. . . ] degrade a body politic," he argues, before mentioning a passage in the story "Iron" in The Periodic Table, where Levi's autobiographical self talks about "the stench of Fascist truths which polluted the sky" (pp. 26-7). In the same essay he again quotes the scene of Charles caring for Lakmaker, this time recontextualising it in the post-September 11 debates about the ethics of torture:
Torture is the radical denial of what moves us in Levi's story. A torturer assaults that to which Charles responded in Lakmaker and which exists in every human being. That is why we say torture turns human beings into things. It can degrade someone so radically that a person who responded to them as fully human, as though their humanity had not been radically diminished, would inspire the same kind of wonder in us as Charles does (p. 59).
Echoes of Levi's reflections are also perceptible in the repeated requests made by Gaita, Manne and Anne Deveson, among many other Australians, for a specific symbolic apology to the members of the "stolen generations", tens of thousands of "part-Aboriginal"14Indigenous Australians consider everyone with any degree of Aboriginal ancestry to be Aboriginal. Until the 1970s nearly all Australian government officials referred to "full-blood" and "half-caste" Aboriginals. . Australian children who between 1910 and 1970 were forcibly removed from their families and brought up in children's homes or foster homes in order to "breed out the colour" by marrying other Aboriginals or whites. Gaita's condemnation of the policy ("The absorption program expressed the horrifyingly arrogant belief that some people may eliminate from the earth peoples they believe to be less than fully human")15Gaita, A Common Humanity, p. 123. echoes Levi's preface to If This Is a Man: "when the unspoken dogma ['Every stranger is an enemy'] becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager."
Memory as a source of meanings for the present was the central theme in a literary controversy that divided Australian readers and critics in the 1990s and where Manne and Gaita took a strong stand referring to Levi's testimonial works as a yardstick. In 1993 a young woman whose name was Helen Darville, but who called herself Helen Demidenko, published a novel entitled The Hand That Signed the Paper, which seeks to explain the collaboration of many Ukrainians with the Nazis in the 1940s as an act of revenge for the wrongs the Ukrainians had suffered at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the 1930s. The novel was awarded two prestigious Australian literary prizes and ignited a bitter debate on Australian attitudes towards the Holocaust. Some readers and critics condemned the judges for their indifference to what they called the novel's "anti-Semitism" and "moral ambiguity", while others saw these criticisms as a campaign against free speech organised by the "Jewish lobby"16Among many different analyses of the controversy, see Robert Manne, The Culture of Forgetting – Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1996; Andrew Riemer, The Demidenko Debate, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996; Sneja Gunew, 'Performing Australian Ethnicity: "Helen Demidenko"' in Wenche Ommundsen and Hazel Rowley (eds),From a Distance: Australian Writers and Cultural Displacement, Geelong: Deakin UP, 1996, pp. 159-71. . Raimond Gaita quoted Levi in a critique of Darville in 1995, in the context of the notions of "humanity", "evil" and "truthfulness". Levi's writings, stated Gaita, "show up Helen Darville" because they are "truthful", namely based on "understanding which is inseparable from disciplined feeling" and "reverence for each individual life whose fate they record"17Raimond Gaita, "Remembering the Holocaust: Absolute Value and the Nature of Evil". Quadrant 39/12 (December 1995) (p.15). . Robert Manne wrote a book, The Culture of Forgetting, analysing the controversy as well as his own personal responses as an Australian as well as a Jew:
I had always assumed that there existed in the Australian intellectual culture a rough historical knowledge of what had happened during the Holocaust and a general awareness of the ideological forces which lay behind it [. . .] I had assumed that we all knew that no one worth reading would dare to write about the Holocaust [. . .] without a recognition of what was at issue here not for Jews but for all human beings. And I had, finally, assumed that all Australians – not only intellectuals – would find it easy to understand why an event like the Holocaust should matter so deeply to those of their fellow citizens who happened to be Jewish. As the Demidenko affair deepened, I discovered, rather suddenly, that not one of those assumptions was sound. (pp. 105-107).
One of the texts which shaped Manne's responses is a passage in the chapter 'Our Nights' in If This Is a Man: Levi's recurrent nightmare of telling about his experiences and being disregarded and abandoned by his listeners. Manne makes a parallel between Levi's "nightmare of the world's forgetting" (p. 171) and his own fear that the meanings of the Holocaust may be forgotten or lost within Australian culture.
Levi's narratives of acquiring knowledge and testing oneself (The Periodic Table; The Wrench; the essays in Other People's Trades) and his narratives of the body (his short fiction) have elicited comparatively little interest in Australia beyond reviews in newspapers and periodicals. The present writer seems to be the only Australian to have examined some of these aspects of Levi's works18See, among other essays," 'Familiarity with Proteus': Primo Levi's Sons and Daughters", in Richard Freadman and J. Gatt-Rutter (eds), Life Writing and the Generations, special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, Vol. 19, 1-2 (Summer 2004) (pp.33-45); "Tales of Toil and Trouble: an Intertextual Reading of Giovannin Bongee, Tevye the Dairyman, and Tino Faussone", in Alastair Hurst and Tony Pagliaro (eds), Essays in Modern Italian and French Literature – In Recollection of Tom O’Neill, Melbourne: Spunti e Ricerche, 2004, pp.29-39; "Primo Levi's Humour", in Robert Gordon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2007, pp.137-53; "Diasporic Dialogues: Primo Levi in Australia". Monica Jansen and Raniero Speelman (eds), Jewish Migration: Voices of the Diaspora. (forthcoming, Italianistica Ultraiectina, 2011). . However, David Shteinman – a Sydney engineer and industrial entrepreneur who is also a former editor of The Australian Philosophy Magazine – is working on a series of essays on philosophies of modern industrial work which contain extensive discussions of The Wrench in comparison with some of Joseph Conrad's works.
The appreciation of the literary qualities of Levi's Holocaust writings in Australia has resulted not only in their becoming known, studied and quoted in Holocaust-related contexts, but also in their providing new ethical and cognitive perspectives for Australian political and social issues, such as acknowledging political responsibilities, challenging justifications of torture as a "necessary evil", and accepting collective guilt and shame for historical wrongs. These new perspectives have in turn opened up Levi's own reflections and kept them alive in the present, as invaluable contributions to analyses of power and its abuses outside as well as inside the death camps, which help us understand, as Levi himself said at the beginning of The Drowned and the Saved, "how much of that world is dead and how much is coming back".