Primo Levi – The Drowned and the Saved

On Tuesday 15 May we discussed ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, by Primo Levi

We were all agreed we were grateful to have read this book. Levi was not only a fine writer and technician, he had the ability to quickly draw the reader in to what was a ‘grey’ world. He brought his analytical mind to bear on what remains ‘unbelievable’ to those of us who did not directly experience Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps. Like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ Levi was forced to tell “his ghastly tale.”

One of Levi’s purposes in writing this book forty years after the end of World War II was to warn future generations: this can happen again. Was he hard on the Germans in his final chapter ‘Letters from Germans’? We spoke of the correspondents who wrote they had not realised what Hitler intended: the response is the intention was made clear in ‘Mein Kampf’ (written in 1925 and 1926).

We spoke of Levi’s ability to examine various aspects of despair and the “extermination of memory” in an unclichéd way: to challenge his own guilt as a survivor – “we the survivors are not the true witnesses”.

Levi was searchingly honest about himself in the chapter ‘The Intellectual in Auschwitz’ – speaking of prayer “For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing, A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”

We Humanists will likely understand: but as a contrasting thought Levi the atheist acknowledges that more ‘survivors’ believed in a deity, since they had hopes of transcendence.

Our score based on the question would you recommend this to a friend was 8.5. One of our group remarked “everyone should read this book.”


Our next book for 19th June is ‘The Third Policeman’ by Flann O’Brien

And 17th July ‘Other Minds, the Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Susan W. David B and Susan B.