There is not a whole lot I knew about Primo Levi, other than he was Italian, a writer, and a Holocaust survivor. I had not read his novels or his memoirs, but I came across The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987 in the bargain section of the bookstore, and thought, what the hell, let's see where this takes me. And then I realized that while reading these interviews gives a clear idea of this writer's voice, his thoughts, his ideas about memory and literature and life, at first it is like blindly feeling my way through a strange room filled with foreign objects when I have not yet read the works referenced in these interviews - If This is a Man, or The Drowned and the Saved, or If Not Now, When?, for example. Reading Levi as interviewed by Germaine Greer and Philip Roth, among others, is like having the background of a painting gently brushed in without knowning where the traced lines of the landscape will be; I am left without a point of reference and must find my own way.
Born and raised in Turin, Levi was trained as a chemist, but was arrested as an anti-Fascist in 1943 and eventually deported and sent to a German concentration camp in 1944, from which he was liberated in 1945, one of the twenty or so Italian Jews to survive (out of some six or seven hundred who had been imprisoned there). It was after his return that he began the second era of his life, as a writer, a memoirist, a survivor and witness. I am a centaur, he said, that mythical creature who was half man, half horse. His identity is cleaved into two - I am an amphibian, a centaur [...] I am split into two. One half of me is the factory, the technician and the chemist. The other half is quite separate from the first [...] and inhabits the world of writing, giving interviews, working on my past and present experiences. They are two halves of my brain. I live with this paranoiac split. It was his training as a chemist, he tells us, that saved him from extermination in the Monowitz camp, and it was his survival that gave birth to that second half of himself, his second life as a writer.
With Levi the line between memory and literature becomes blurred; the two are one complete, indistinguishable whole. He invokes the memory of 'Ulysses spending the night recounting his odyssey to Alcinous.' Probably there is another motivation here, he tells us, perhaps that almost banal need to testify to the facts, to make another understand that I am different from you, that I have seen things you have never seen, thus I am at a level above you. I think that many believe Levi died a suicide, having, as Benjamin put it, let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of history. It puts me in mind of Odysseus (Ulysses), who returned from the Trojan war and made his way through all obstacles to his own kingdom, who at long last died having lived through all manner of things that the rest of us can barely imagine. I think he, too, died a suicide. When I think of Levi I will think of those words.
Levi, Primo. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. The New Press, 2001. pp xx, xix, xxv.