Passages from “Survival in Auschwitz”

... The canto of Ulysses. Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand: today I feel capable of so much.
... Who is Dante? What is the Comedy? That curious sensation of novelty which one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. Virgil is Reason, Beatrice is Theology. Jean pays great attention, and I begin slowly and accurately:

Then of that age-old fire the loftier hornz
Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame
Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;
And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro
Threw out a voice and answered: ‘When I came ...’

Here I stop and try to translate. Disastrous – poor Dante and poor French! All the same, the experience seems to promise well: Jean admires the bizarre simile of the tongue and suggests the appropriate word to translate “age-old”. And after “When I came”? Nothing. A hole in my memory. “Before Aeneas ever named it so.” Another hole. A fragment floats into my mind, not relevant: “… nor piety To my old father, nor the wedded love That should have comforted Penelope …” is it correct?

… So on the open sea I set forth.

Of this I am certain, I am sure, I can explain it to Pikolo, I can point out why “I set forth” is not “je me mis”, it is much stronger and more audacious, it is a chain which has been broken, it is throwing oneself on the other side of the barrier, we know the impulse well.

(Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz; translated from Italian by Stuart Woolf; Collier Books, New York, 1961, p. 102 – 103)


Multimedia interactive exhibition
Turin • 27 January | 20 March 2010
Fossoli • 25 April | 11 July 2010
5-20 September 2010
Roma • 12 October | 27 November 2010