Review: Collected Poems by Primo Levi

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For once, I’m going to write a serious book review, because the work of Primo Levi really does deserve some respect. In case you don’t know anything about him, Levi was born in Italy in 1919 to a Jewish family. He trained as a chemist, but the Second World War drastically altered his fate. After fighting in the Italian Resistance Movement, he was captured and in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews who went there with him, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. He managed this through a combination of luck and good judgement – his scientific knowledge led him to work within the camp’s laboratories attempting to make synthetic rubber, thus avoiding hard labour in freezing outdoor conditions and providing him with an opportunity to steal materials which could be traded for food with the other inmates. Shortly before the camp was liberated, Levi contracted Scarlet Fever and thus avoided the Auschwitz evacuation initiated by the SS which resulted in the death of the vast majority of the prisoners. After the war, he went on to become an author, and produced (amongst other things) some of the most haunting poetry that I’ve ever read.

This book is not to be read by the faint hearted. The earlier poems contained within the first third of the work are clearly an attempt by Levi to come to terms with the horrors of the war and although they often feature themes of anger and desolation, there’s also a sense of forgiveness. It’s quite amazing, considering what he must have gone through, but there’s never any judgement or blame – only reflection and bewilderment that the human race can treat each other so appallingly.

As Levi gets older, his poetry becomes more expansive and although many of the themes of warning, loss and regret are the same, the references become more veiled and allegorical. There’s also quite a lot of literary references (some are more obvious than others) but in the volume that I read all are referenced for easy explanation in the back of the book. I’ve seen some reviewers say that they think Levi’s later work isn’t as good as his war poetry, but I found the same narrative streak running through it all and thought that almost all of the poems had the same level of gravity and emotion.

The language used within Levi’s poetry is surprisingly gentle, and the meditative tone suggests a man trying to make sense of his experiences, rather than to shock or horrify. It’s an incredibly honest and emotive look at life, and Levi has a special way of using concise language to convey a myriad of thoughts and feelings. Although the book itself is quite slim, I would urge you to take your time in reading each poem individually, and really think about what message Levi was trying to get across.

I haven’t rated this book as it seems like an incredibly crass thing to do – but I do highly recommend it to you all.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #23 Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

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