Page 43 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Primo Levi's Judaism
IMAGINATION AT WORK
In his telling of the story ofMartin Fontasch, Primo Levi’s writ­
ing reaches a height of verisimilitude that he will attain subse­
quently only in his creation of the character of Faussone in
The
Monkey's Wrench.
Just as he found it necessary in the latter book to
explain that Faussone is “imaginary but ‘perfectly authentic,”’ the
fruit of his fertile imagination and talented pen, so too Levi feels
obliged to explain in an “Author’s Note” at the end of
I f Not Now
When?
that Martin Fontasch is not a historical figure. Indeed, the
mode of his explanation throws light on the Jewish character of the
characters of the novel:
In particular, the figure of Martin Fontasch is imaginary; but it is true that
manyjewish poet-singers, famous and obscure, in cities and in remote villages,
were killed as this Martin is and not only in the years 1939-1945 , and not only
by the Nazis. So the song of the “Gedalists” is also invented, but its refrain,
which is also the title of the book, was prompted by some words which I found
in the Pirke Avoth (TheMaxims o fthe Fathers), a collection of the sayings o f fa­
mous rabbis edited in the second century A.D. and a part of the Talmud. In the
first chapter, verse thirteen, it says: “He (Rabbi Hillel) also said: ‘If I am not for
myself, who will be for me? And even i f I think of myself, what am I? And i f not
now, when?’ Naturally, the interpretation o f this saying that 1 attribute to the char­
acters is not an Orthodox one. (p. 348, my emphasis)
What is meant by Levi’s “Unorthodoxy” is in essence the sub­
ject of this essay.
The song itself is a three-act play depicting three stages of Jew­
ish historical development. The first stanza constitutes an accusa­
tion hurled at a Christian society which for a thousand years has
used the Crucifixion as a pretext for molesting a mild people of
“tailors, scribes, and cantors.” By the second stanza, this historical
process has accumulated momentum and has crystallized into the
“Event” of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, characterized in
synecdoche by the chimneys of Sobibor and Treblinka, and by
those who have survived solely for the honor of their people. What
characterizes the last stanza is its use of a Jewish “vocabulary.” It