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This interview is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

in conversation with Primo Levi Ian Thomson
 
Primo Levi endured almost the worst that the twentieth century has had to offer. In February 1944 he was deported, with 650 other Italian partisans, to Auschwitz: 'a name without significance for us at the time, but it at least implied some place on earth'. Levi became Häftling - prisoner - 174517, and was shortly transferred to Buna, a rubber factory connected to the extermination camp. There he worked as a chemist until 27 January 1945, when the Red Army tanks finally arrived. Only three of the partisans survived. The need to 'tell the story, to bear witness' was afterwards so urgent that, some forty years on, Levi likened himself to Coleridge's ancient Mariner: 'And till my ghastly tale is told / This heart within me burns'.

Levi told his tale in what are now deservedly considered masterpieces: If This is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963) - 'the written forms of oral stories which I have told countless times after my escape from Auschwitz'. But it was almost a decade before If This is a Man won recognition in Italy. Levi first sent the typescript to Natalia Ginzburg at Einaudi; she rejected it. But Levi looked back on the incident as fortunate: 'If I'd had an immediate success with If This is a Man, I would have probably given up my career as a chemist, and without chemistry, I would not have written The Periodic Table.'

The Periodic Table (1975), a collection of ...


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