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This report is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

Pikolo, Three Great Poems, and Primo Levi's 'The Mensch' Anthony Rudolf
Note: All translations are by Anthony Rudolf except for the extract beginning 'But nothing happened …', which is by Sydney and Stella Rosenfeld.

* * *

On a recent visit to France I spent a day in Strasbourg. The purpose of my journey was to spend some time with Jean Samuel, Primo Levi's Pikolo in his book about Auschwitz, if This is a Man. In Chapter 11, The Canto of Ulysses', the younger French prisoner asks Levi to teach him Italian. Levi tries to remember some lines from Canto XXVI of Dante's Inferno. The episode is crucial, coming as it does immediately after a chapter which ends with a Kapo wiping his hands on Primo Levi. 'Listen, Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand for my sake.' With three lines in particular Levi reminds himself and his friend that they are men not beasts. And these three lines Pikolo begs Levi to repeat:
 
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per sequir virtute e canoscenza.

Consider the seed from which you
 spring.
You were not born to live like beasts
But to seek both virtue and knowledge.


It is interesting to compare this story of the radical importance of poetry with two other accounts of poems remembered, in Robert Antelme's The Human Race and Jean Améry's At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a ...


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