Primo Levi’s Partisans


If Not Now, When? a novel by Primo Levi

I am re-reading Primo Levi’s novel If Not Now, When? It’s a story of a band of Jewish partisans during World War II. The partisans tool their way through Russia and Poland surviving and sabotaging. It’s not my favorite Primo Levi book. Though it’s thoroughly researched and based on historic events and people… it comes off a bit as a sort of wish-fulfillment. For my personal perception it comes off as just a bit over-optimistic. Too many of the characters are just a bit too saintly; they all just get along a bit too well.

Levi survived Nazi death camps, so the idea of happy-go-lucky Jewish partisans striking back at Hitler would be comforting especially to him. It does push back against unhelpful stereotypes that suggest Jews went passively to their deaths. Despite my criticisms, I am really enjoying reading it.

Below is a brief passage – that’s not especially deep or anything – but that I smiled when I read. I like Primo Levi’s descriptions of negotiating – haggling over prices, etc. and this has a grain of that. The main characters Leonid and Mendel come upon a Peiami, a lone person camped in a crashed airplane:

“Here’s the salt,” Leonid said, taking one packet from his knapsack. “Salt for the rabbit: a fair trade all around.”

They negotiated a long time as to how much salt  half a rabbit should cost. Peiami, though he remained calm, was a tireless bargainer, always ready to adduce more arguments: trading entertained him, like a game, and excited him, like a tournament. He pointed out the fact that, even without salt, rabbit is nourishing, whereas salt without rabbit is not nourishing. And his rabbit was lean, and therefore of high quality, because rabbit fat is bad for the kidneys. And though he was out of salt at the moment, salt was cheap in the area, there was plenty of it, the Russians dropped it by parachute to the outlaw bands. The pair of them shouldn’t take advantage of his temporary lack; if they were heading for Gomel, they’d find salt in every izba, at disastrously low prices. And finally, simply out of cultural interest and a natural curiosity about other people’s customs, he enquired, “Do you eat rabbit? The Jews in Samarkand won’t eat it: for them it’s like pork.”

“We’re special Jews,” Leonid said, “hungry Jews.”

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