If Not Now, When?

Primo Levi

translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Penguin 1995 [1982]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 https://dannyreviews.com/
Finding himself behind German lines in July 1943, Russian Jew Mendel heads west, meets up with other partisans, and eventually joins a Jewish band led by the violin-playing Gedaleh. With their families killed and their home communities destroyed, most of them have nothing left but to fight — for survival and, where they can, against German supply lines and camps. Their journey takes them across Byelorussia and Poland, into conquered Germany, and eventually to Italy.

If Not Now, When? is rooted in historical events and draws on Levi's own experiences in Auschwitz and as a displaced person after the war, on the stories of partisans he met, and on secondary sources. It gives us a feel for the broad spaces and the marshes and forests, the scattered skirmishes of a spread-out war, and the uneasy relationships between civilians and different partisan groups, with trade and exchange persisting even in desperate conditions, but with Russians and Poles not always friendly to Jews.

Levi is a novelist, however, not a historian. It is individuals who are at the core of his work — Mendel first and foremost, but others are also given substance — and their relationships as they seek companionship, romance and fleeting happiness. Some struggle with doubt and despair, and in Mendel's more ruminative moments we see the philosophical quandry facing those who have lost everything and must find new goals, new purposes. But this doesn't dominate the story. If Not Now, When? exhibits Levi's familiar restraint, his disdain for the flamboyant or dramatised, but it is a fast-moving novel, a simple but powerful story of human endurance and struggle in a hostile world.

May 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de
Related reviews:
- books by Primo Levi
- books about Eastern Europe + Eastern European history
- more Italian literature
- books about Judaism + Jewish history
- books about World War II
- more war fiction
%T If Not Now, When?
%A Levi, Primo
%M Italian
%F Weaver, William
%I Penguin
%D 1995 [1982]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0140188932
%P 352pp