Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels And Collaborators In Occupied Italy, by Sergio Luzzatto
It is striking, and something I did not know until reading this book, that the place of Primo Levi’s short and spectacularly unsuccessful career as a partisan against the Germans and the Fascist Republic of Salo took place in the only part of Italy I know well from my own travels, the Val d’Aosta, not far away from the City of Aosta where in 2004 my girlfriend at the time and I (along with her parents) spent an enjoyable afternoon of driving around and looking for an early dinner while we were attending the Feast of Tabernacles in nearby Annecy, France. I’m not sure if there is any significance in this striking coincidence, but all the same it certainly allowed me to visualize this book and its complex and impressive story about the Italian resistance and efforts to counter it in this particular region. Although the story has seldom been told, and probably never with the detail told here, the author of this book manages to take an allusive set of lines in Levi’s memoir The Periodic Table and turn it into a research project of considerable subtlety in understanding the nature of the Italian resistance.
This book is just over 200 pages, but manages to preserve a sense of drama throughout as the author discusses his own efforts at researching the Italian resistance and its aftermath in the Aosta Valley region. The author begins with a prefatory note to English readers about the historical context of the Italian resistance in the overthrow of Mussolini and the resulting German invasion of Italy when Italy sued for peace in 1943 after the invasion of Sicily and a prologue about the allusive lines in Levi’s memoir that led the author to research the subject. After that there is a discussion about the invention of the resistance that Levi talked about and how it came about (1). The author notes that the early resistance was part partisan and part bandit (2) and that this included some rough justice being delivered to those who were a bit too undisciplined. After that the author discusses the snowy dawn when Levi and a few others were captured thanks to the efforts of a turncoat (3), and the way that the torch was passed from Levi and other early partisans to later ones who would carry on the resistance (4). The author talks about the abortive efforts for justice and revenge against the Fascists of Salo after the liberation of Italy (5). A couple of chapters look at the efforts to try Cagni, the turncoat and professional traitor for his crimes (6,7) before the effects of the winds of pardon that sought to turn Italy into a bulwark of anticommunism (8), which allows Cagni to betray his former fascist allies as an American agent provocateur. Then the author moves on to discuss the explanation of the death of the two young people to their relatives (9) and the effect of the burden of Levi’s partisan experience on his later writing (10).
Obviously, this book is most of interest to readers who appreciate the writing of Primo Levi. If you are not well-versed in Levi’s writings or do not wish to be, there is likely little reason to be interested in the goings on of a small band of partisan rebels and writing about them in a remote part of Italy during World War II. The Italian resistance is not well known and unless one has a personal stake in the matter it is likely that few people will be familiar with it. That said, this is a fascinating story about a complex set of problems that includes the difficulties of waging and fighting guerrilla warfare, the issue of partisan justice, and the way that settling scores and providing justice in the aftermath of civil war is often undercut by the desire to return to normalcy as soon as possible, which leads to many guilty people being pardoned and much just action being undone because it would preserve the civil discord that previously reigned. Although it is a tale with a small set of main characters, the book is a compelling one that provides a fascinating entry into the study of the Italian resistance as a whole as well as a great deal of insight into the complexities of Italian politics in the postwar period.