Levi deliberately takes the neutral tone of a witness in the stand recounting the 11 months he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, from his arrest in Italy, transportation, internment, and the random mess of liberation. Much as the biblical Easter accounts (unlike many preachers and depictions) don’t dwell on or try to evoke or milk the brutality of the crucifiction, Levi dispassionately relates what happened. There’s a profound tension in this: any half-functioning human can only have an appropriately deep emotional reaction. Levi doesn’t deny this, but seeks an intellectual and philosophical response as well. That the events of the holocaust could ever have happened should not only bring us to tears, but it should make us think – and centrally about this question, “If this is a man”. Many of the Germans responsible had decided that it was possible to define Jews as less than human and to treat them that way. In some ways Levi might seem to suggest that they succeeded in reducing their victims to a sub-human state, where there was no longer any defining characteristic of humanity – whether it be sentience, morality, communication, self-consciousness, whatever – merely an awareness of hunger, pain and fatigue. One chapter, for example, is entitled, ‘The Good Day’ – a day that for anyone else would be completely appalling – but through the inevitable quirks of occasional administrative glitches (even in Germany) Levi and a few others managed an hour or two of escape from extreme hunger and discomfort … to briefly slip back into awareness of the grief of the knowledge of their murdered wives and children. Bizarrely, however, every page of this dry account screams out the opposite: these are real people. As a reader you want them not to be, as a way to dull the sense of atrocity, but it’s unavoidable. And extraordinary that this is accomplished without the usual armoury of writer’s techniques – emotive adjectives, simile and metaphor. There’s even hardly any dialogue to build character and situation.
Some of this is the uniqueness of the writer. I first came to Levi though his excellent The Wrench, which among other things is a meditation on the contrast between blue and white collar work. His reserved, thoughtful style was surprisingly engaging. It fit for me that (in an appendix to the edition of ‘If This Is A Man’ that I read) when Levi addressed the question of, ‘How did your experience at Auschwitz change you?’ one aspect was that he became a writer – something he never would have considered beforehand. His voice feels uncontrived, unmanipulative – which is ironically particularly ‘effective’ (a term which relates more to contrivance and manipulation). But as he also points out, he could only tell his story – and he leaves it to others to tell theirs. This relates so strongly to the title – another prisoner’s account, even deliberately in this style of objective witness in the stand, would have massive factual correlation, but would also be a very different account. You’d think that surely individuality has been destroyed in this vile machine, and that was how some blind/ed fools thought who could not see beyond the similarity of gaunt, stinking bodies in filthy threadbare uniforms. Yet even here every prisoner is textured and unique – and not because of laboured efforts to evoke this. It simply is. Interestingly in this account it’s the Germans that are largely interchangeable, even invisible – perhaps because Levi knew he would not be capable of dwelling on them without stepping outside his dispassionate mode.