The writer turned his imprisonment in Auschwitz into a powerful testimonyby Joanna Bourke / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein (three volumes). Penguin Classics, £120
It was a war zone, but the house at No 26 Glockenstrasse appeared intact. All around it was devastation: pavements were broken, roads were impassable, and the stench of blood, piss and cement hung in the air. Nazism had been defeated, but the house at No 26 remained: a monument to human cruelty.
This is the scene Primo Levi conjured in “Angelic Butterfly,” one of his science-fiction stories, written in the early 1960s. Although Levi is better known for his books describing his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz, the extraordinary variety of his writing is startlingly revealed in Ann Goldstein’s edited Complete Works. This is the first time all of Levi’s writings have been translated into English and set out chronologically. In three beautiful volumes, Levi’s memoirs, novels, poetry, literary criticism, newspaper polemics, reviews, forewords, fantasy tales and science fiction are now available to English-language readers. The effect is both enthralling and overwhelming.
In “Angelic Butterfly” a scientist called Professor Leeb and some soldiers are seen marching four skeletal prisoners into the house at No 26 Glockenstrasse. A 16-year-old neighbour called Gertrud Enk realised that “something strange was going on,” only to be told by her father: “Let it go, don’t concern yourself with what’s going on in there. We Germans, the less we know, the better.” However, she twice caught a glimpse of those inmates. The first time, the prisoners were lying on straw mats—either dead or sleeping. A guard was calmly reading a newspaper. The second time, they had been transformed into vulture-like beasts, squawking in terror while chained to poles. Enk later recalls that, when the war ended, her neighbours butchered the prisoners for food.
As science fiction, “Angelic Butterfly” is powerful stuff. Levi first published it under a pseudonym, worried that his readers might see writing in that genre as a betrayal. His Holocaust memoirs—If This Is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963)—had made him revered as a witnesses to Nazism’s inhumanity. But, as Levi explained, he moved to science fiction because he “couldn’t persist…