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Cultural cohesion, p.32
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.32

           Clive James
 

  A more serious criticism could be made through the area in which the book most obviously excels. As a literary work, it rather tails off, as if its author had got tired of it. If Hughes plans another volume, telling the story up to Federation, at the turn of the century, it will be very welcome, though the period has already been well covered by historians. But, on the evidence of his text, his interest flags after Australia has ceased to be a paradox—a birth in death—and he interprets the approach of relative normality as a signal to pack up.

  Even so, a more roundly conclusive final chapter would have been gratifying. Earlier chapters amply prove that Hughes would have been capable of it. He has that rarest ability among pictorially talented writers, of making a plain prose statement that covers the case. His television series The Shock of the New was good to look at but even better to hear. Giving us his view of the stack of bricks that the Tate Gallery had purchased and displayed as a work of art, Hughes made his point so simply that it didn’t sound like an epigram: “Anyone except a child can make such things.” (Cocteau’s famous remark about the poetic prodigy Minou Drouet—“Every child is a genius except Minou Drouet”—is funnier, but not so true.) As the art critic of Time, since 1970, Hughes has had the obligation of covering the world art beat in readily accessible prose most weeks of the year. Bigger stories, such as the Rothko-legacy scam, he has been able to treat at length in the New York Review of Books. While the typical homebound Australian literary genius veers between undisciplined newspaper articles and fictional masterpieces that grow extra chapters of self-justification if challenged, Hughes has had to perfect himself in the good journalistic practice of seeing the point and keeping to it.

  For his discovery of the diligent man inside his own bohemianism (“Live like a bourgeois,” said Flaubert, “think like a demigod”) New York has rewarded Hughes well, not least with much free time. This book is what he did with it. He went home and rediscovered his country, with an eidetic intensity that recalls Sidney Nolan doing the same thing, and in a prose that adds something to Patrick White’s vision of the Australian landscape—clarity, straightforwardness, a sparkling simplicity without distortion. Finally, the best thing about The Fatal Shore is just that: going about other business, it doesn’t try to be a work of art. Even on a subject like this, and at such length, Hughes has managed to speak with the arresting verve that Australians of today, fancying themselves, not without reason, as natural democrats, would like to think of as their peculiar tone of voice—the breath of sanity.

  The New Yorker, March 23, 1987; later included in

  Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988

  POSTSCRIPT

  Did Robert Hughes benefit by making his base in New York instead of London? Obviously so. As an art critic, it put him in the centre of the action, and in his amplified task as a general cultural commentator it has given him the best of two worlds, because his books arrive in Britain with all the impetus of American success behind them. The latter aspect is too seldom mentioned. For all the British literary world’s justifiable pride in its self-sufficiency, American prestige works the same trick with the British media as the PX of a U.S. Air Force base used to work with British teenage girls. And Hughes’s television programmes, merely well regarded on the minority outlets of the U.S., are hailed as major events when transferred to British mainstream channels, especially now that British public service broadcasting has largely given up on initiating any projects of similar scope and depth. Both tactically and strategically, Hughes could hardly have handled his exile better. The only drawback was slow to emerge, but it was edifying when it did.

  When it came to the 1999 referendum on whether Australia should break its constitutional ties with Britain and become a republic, Hughes was a star performer of the unfortunately named Republican Movement. (Movement? Bewegung? Bad idea.) Unfazed by the long flight home across the Pacific, he could outwrite and outspeak anybody on his own side, and he left everybody on the other side sounding inarticulate. But his Americanized glamour helped to intensify the suspicion that the prominent republicans might be a bunch of silvertails with their own aims. For the Australian people, the “silvertail” is the person who has quite enough privileges already. The result of the referendum set the Republican Movement back on its heels. Like several others among the disappointed leadership, Hughes showed a tendency to blame the population for missing its historic opportunity. Catching him out of countenance, the press, itself overwhelmingly pro-republican, nevertheless took delight in calling him a carpetbagger. Like many another successful Australian expatriate, Hughes has proved by the trajectory of his career that the climb into orbit is the easy part: it’s the re-entry that’s hard.

  2003

  21

  PRIMO LEVI’S

  LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT

  The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi,

  translated by Raymond Rosenthal

  Primo Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved—published in Italy before he committed suicide—is the condensed, poised summation of all his written work, which includes novels, memoirs, poems, short stories and critical articles. All his books deal more or less directly with the disastrous historical earthquake of which the great crimes of Nazi Germany constitute the epicentre, and on whose shifting ground we who are alive still stand. None of the books is less than substantial and some of them are masterpieces, but they could all, at a pinch, be replaced by this one, which compresses what they evoke into a prose argument of unprecedented cogency and force. If the unending tragedy of the Holocaust can ever be said to make sense, then it does so in these pages. The book has not been as well translated as one could wish—Levi’s supreme mastery of prose is reduced to something merely impressive—but its status as an indispensable guidebook to the infernal cellars of the age we live in is beyond doubt from the first chapter.

  That we need guidance is one of the things Levi was always insistent about. He insisted quietly, but on that point he never let up. In a tough joke on himself, he acknowledged his kinship with the Ancient Mariner—the epigraph of this book is from Coleridge’s poem—but he didn’t apologize for telling his ghastly tale. The mind will reject this kind of knowledge if it can. Such ignorance doesn’t even have to be willed. It is a protective mechanism. Levi was in no doubt that this mechanism needs to be overridden. Not knowing about what didn’t suit them was how people let the whole thing happen in the first place.

  A powerful aid to not knowing was the scale of the horror, hard to imagine even if you were there. The SS taunted the doomed with the assurance that after it was all over, nobody left alive would be able to credit what had happened to the dead, so there would be nothing to mark their passing—not even a memory. Levi’s argument, already a summary, is difficult to summarize further, but if a central tenet can be extracted it would have to do with exactly that—memory. Beyond the evidence, which is by now so mountainous that it can be challenged only by the insane, there is the interpretation of the evidence. To interpret it correctly, even we who are sane have to grasp what things were really like. Levi is trying to make us see something that didn’t happen to us as if we remembered it. There are good reasons, I think, for believing that not even Levi could fully succeed in this task. We can’t live with his memories, and in the long run it turned out that not even he could. But if he has failed he has done so only to the extent of having been unable to concoct a magic potion, and in the process he has written a classic essay.

  In Auschwitz, most of Levi’s fellow Italian Jews died quickly. If they spoke no German and were without special skills, nothing could save them from the gas chambers and the ovens. Like most of the deportees from all the other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, they arrived with small idea of where they were, and died before they could find out. Levi’s training as a chemist made him exploitable. The few German words he had picked up in his studies were just enough to convey this fact to the exploiters. In the special camp for useful workers—it is fully described in his first
and richest book, Survival in Auschwitz—Levi was never far from death, but he survived to write his testimony, in the same way that Solzhenitsyn survived the Gulag, and for the same reason: privilege. If Solzhenitsyn had not been a mathematician, we would probably never have heard of him as a writer. But if Levi had not been a chemist we would certainly never have heard of him as a writer. In the Soviet labour camp, death, however plentiful, was a by-product. The Nazi extermination camp was dedicated exclusively to its manufacture. Luck wasn’t enough to bring you through. You had to have an edge on all the others. The proposition sounds pitiless until Levi explains it: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.” The typical prisoner did not get out alive. Those at the heart of the story had no story.

  Shame, according to Levi, is thus the ineluctable legacy of all who lived. Reduced to a bare ego, the victim was under remorseless pressure to ignore the fate of everyone except himself. If he had friends, he and his friends were against the others, at least to the extent of not sharing with them the extra piece of bread that could make the difference between life and death within the conspiratorial circle but if shared outside would not be even a gesture, because everyone would die. During a heatwave, Levi found a few extra mouthfuls of water in a rusty pipe. He shared the bounty only with a close friend. He might have told others about this elixir of life, but he did not. Luckily, his self-reproach, though patently bitter, helps rather than hinders his effort to re-create for us the stricken landscape in which feelings of complicity were inescapable.

  One of Levi’s several triumphs as a moralist—for once, the word can be used with unmixed approval—is that he has analysed these deep and complicated feelings of inexpungible shame without lapsing into the relativism that would make everyone guilty. If everyone was guilty, then everyone was innocent, and Levi is very certain that his persecutors were not innocent. The Nazis were as guilty as the Hell they built. The good citizens who decided not to know were less guilty but still guilty. There were many degrees of guilt among those who were not doing the suffering. Some of them were as innocent as you can be while still being party to a crime. But parties to a crime they all were. The victims of the crime had nothing at all in common with those who planned it or went along with it. The victims who survived, and who were ashamed because they did, were not responsible for their shame, because they were driven to it. Even if they did reprehensible things—in the area of behaviour that Levi calls the Grey Zone—they could reasonably contend that they would never have contemplated such conduct in normal circumstances, from which they had been displaced through no fault of their own.

  Levi has no harsh words even for those most terribly contaminated of survivors, the Sonderkommando veterans. The few still alive decline to speak. Levi believes that the right to silence of these men, who chose to live at the price of cooperating with the killers, should be respected. He is able to imagine—able, momentarily, to make us imagine—that the chance of postponing one’s own death was hard to turn down, even at the cost of having to attend closely upon the unspeakable deaths of countless others. Levi manages to sympathize even with the Kapos, not all of whom were sadists, and all of whom wanted to live. Levi has no sympathy for the persecutors, but he is ready to understand them, as long as he is not asked to exonerate them. His patience runs out only when it comes to those who parade their compassion without realizing that they are trampling on the memory of the innocent dead. As a writer, Levi always keeps his anger in check, the better to distribute its intensity, but occasionally you sense that he is on the verge of an outburst. One such moment is when he reproves the film director Liliana Cavani, who has offered the opinion “We are all victims or murderers, and we accept these roles voluntarily.” Faced with this brand of self-indulgent vaporizing, Levi expresses just enough contempt to give us an inkling of what his fury would have been like if he had ever let rip. To confuse the murderers with their victims, he says, “is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”

  Levi might have written like that all the time if he had wished. But his sense of proportion never let him down. The offence was too great for individual anger to be appropriate. Emerging from his discussion of the Grey Zone of behaviour, in which the survivors, pushed to the edge of the pit, were excusably reduced to base actions that they would not have dreamed of in real life, he goes on to discuss the inexcusably base actions of those engineers of cruelty who made sure that even the millions of victims murdered immediately on arrival would have an education in despair before they died. In a chapter called “Useless Violence,” Levi reminds us that we should not set too much store by the idea that the Nazi extermination programme was, within its demented limits, carried out rationally. Much of the cruelty had no rational explanation whatsoever. No matter how long it took the train to reach the camp, the boxcars were never provided with so much as a bucket. It wasn’t that the SS were saving themselves trouble: since the boxcars had to be sent back in reasonable shape to be used again, it would actually have been less trouble to provide them with some sort of facility, however crude. There was no reason not to do so except to cause agony. Old people who were already dying in their homes were thrown onto the trains lest they miss out on the death the Nazis had decided was due them, the death with humiliation as a prelude.

  You would expect Levi’s voice to crack when he writes of such things, but instead it grows calmer. He doesn’t profess to fully comprehend what went on in the minds of people who could relish doing such things to their fellow human beings. His tone of voice embodies his reticence. He is not reticent, however, about any commentator who does profess to fully understand, without having understood the most elementary facts of the matter. After the protracted and uncertain journey recorded in The Reawakening, Levi at last returned to Italy, and there was told that his survival must surely have been the work of Providence: fate had preserved him, a friend said, so that he might testify. In this book Levi characterizes that idea as “monstrous”: a big word for him—almost as big as any word he ever uses about the events themselves.

  He is firm on the point, but this firmness is only a subdued echo of how he made the same point at the end of the “October 1944” chapter of Survival in Auschwitz, where the prisoner Kuhn, after the terrifying process of selection for the gas chambers has once again passed him by, loudly and personally thanks God. In the earlier book Levi was scornful of Kuhn’s selfishness in believing that the Providence that had ignored so many should be concerned to preserve him. (“If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”) In this book, the same argument is put no less decisively, but more in sorrow than in anger, as if such folly were ineradicable, a part of being human. Though Levi was never a fatalist, at the end of his life he seems to have been readier to accept that human beings are frail and would prefer to misunderstand these things if given the opportunity. Wonderfully, however, he remained determined not to give them the opportunity. At the very time when he feared that the memory and its meaning might slip from the collective human intelligence and go back into the historic past that we only pretend concerns us, Levi’s trust in human reason was at its most profound. Transparent even in its passion, level-headed at the rim of the abyss, the style of his last book is an act of faith.

  From the translation, however, you can’t always tell. Raymond Rosenthal has mainly done a workmanlike job where something more accomplished was called for, and sometimes he is not even workmanlike. The Drowned and the Saved ranks with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope as a testament of the age, but Nadezhda Mandelstam’s translator was Max Hayward, whose English was on a par with her Russian. One doesn’t want to berate Mr. Rosenthal, who has toiled hard, but one might be forgiven for wishing that his editors had noticed when he needed help. If they weren’t aware that a paragraph by Levi always flows smoothly as a single rhythmic unit, they should at least have guessed that a sentence by Levi
is never nonsense—and when it comes down to detail the translation all too often obscures what Levi took pains to make clear, dulls the impact of his most precisely calculated effects, and puts chaos back into the order he achieved at such cost.

  There doesn’t seem to have been much editorial control at all. Punctuation is arbitrary and spellings have been left unchecked. In the original Italian text, Levi left a handful of German words—part of the uniquely ugly vocabulary of Naziism—untranslated, so that they would stand out with suitable incongruity. In this Englished version they are treated the same way, but some of them are misspelled, which might mean either that Mr. Rosenthal does not read German or that he does not read proofs, but certainly means that the editors were careless. A Geheimnisträger is a bearer of secrets. If Geheimnisfräger means anything, it would mean an asker of secrets, which is the opposite of what Levi intended. This kind of literal misprint can happen to anyone at any time and is especially likely to be introduced at the last moment while other errors are being corrected, but another piece of weird German seems to have originated with the translator himself. “There is an unwritten but iron law, Zurüchschlagen: answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression that can only occur to the mind of a ‘newcomer,’ and anyone who commits it must be made an example.” The word should be zurückschlagen, with a lower case “z” because it is not a noun, and a “k” instead of the first “h.” Worse, and probably because the word has not been understood, the first comma and the colon have been transposed, thereby neatly reversing the sense. What Levi is saying is that it was against the law to strike back. The English text says that this law was called: to strike back. An important point has been rendered incomprehensible.

 
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