Understanding Primo Levi by Nicholas Patruno

By Nicholas Patruno

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Though it is not the intention of this study to point to all of Levi's references to Dante, it is in keeping with the study's objectives to identify his bond with the earlier writer. Even before Levi recounts the arrival of the prisoners at Auschwitz, he makes a reference to Page 13 the Inferno in his description of the soldier who accompanies them in the track from the cattle train. In the soldier's request that the members of the group turn over to him anything of value in their possession, Levi sees a parallel with Dante's description of Charon, the demon who in the Inferno (canto 3) carries the damned in a boat across the Acheron River and who, according to the legend, upon arrival on the other side expects some kind of recompense.

Levi claims, however, that in the book style takes second place to his urgent need to tell, and he begs forgiveness for the structural imperfections of the text and the "fragmentary character" (6) of the chapters, which, he admits, were not necessarily written in the order in which they appear. Page 9 The theme of the work may be found in its short preface, where Levi states, somewhat self-effacingly, that the book adds little if anything to the already well known details of the atrocities carried out in, as he calls them, extermination camps.

To Levi, this relationship is a fundamental, and perhaps the saddest, component of the punishment in the Lager. Whether or not it is planned by the oppressors, the reality is that acts of extreme cruelty were carded out not only by the Nazis but also by some of the prisoners. Levi understands, nevertheless, that in a world where the struggle for survival is without remission and each human being is so "desperately and ferociously" alone (118), such behavior can be expected and even accepted. He sees the camp as being divided between the "drowned," who will soon succumb, and the "saved," who manage in one way or another to survive or are at least able to delay their death.

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