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This article is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

The Starving of Auschwitz and the Gluttons of Purgatory Judith Woolf

In his preface to If This is a Man, Primo Levi describes the narrative compulsion which led him to document the eleven months he spent as a starving and brutalised prisoner in the industrial slave labour camp of Buna-Monowitz, one of the complex of camps which made up the vast death-factory of Auschwitz.

The need to tell our story to 'the rest', to make 'the rest' participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs.1

Begun immediately after Levi's return to Italy, and based in part on the notes he had made and immediately destroyed, 'because if they were found they would be considered an act of espionage and would cost me my life',2 when his assignment to work as a technician in the laboratory of the Buna synthetic rubber plant gave him access to writing materials, the book appears at first sight to derive all its force from the stark and lucid rendering of raw experience, in episodes put down on paper 'not in logical succession, but in order of urgency'.3 However, in an interview in 1985, Levi claimed that in the forty years since its gestation he had

constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting ...

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