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A Dante Of Our Time

Primo Levi and Auschwitz


Risa B. Sodi

This original and timely volume details the influence of Dante's Inferno on Primo Levi's classic Holocaust narrative, Se questo è uomo, and his last book of essays, I sommersi e i salvatie. Such key concepts as memory, justice, and the realm of the neutral sinners - «la zona grigia» for Levi - are given particular emphasis. Three questions form the backbone of the book: Can memory be overcome? Where is justice for the Holocaust survivor? and, Is there a middle ground between victim and oppressors, and how does Levi define it? Ample use of interviews with the author reveal how Levi relates these three questions to such contemporary figures as Sigmund Freud, Franz Stangl, Rudolf Höss, Jean Améry, Liliana Cavani, and Kurt Waldheim.


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2. Neither in bono nor in malo: The Grey Zone and the Neutral Sinners 31


CHAPTER II NEITHER IN BONO NOR IN MAW: THE GREY ZONE AND THE NEUTRAL SINNERS In introducing his chapter on the grey zone in I sommersi e i salvati, Levi points out that it is human nature to want to simplify, but that "while the desire for simplification is justifiable, simplification itself in many cases is not." 1 He continues: Ora, non era semplice Ia rete dei rapporti umani all 'intemo dei Lager: non era riducibile ai due blocchi delle vittime e dei persecutori. In chi Iegge (o scrive) oggi la storia dei Lager e evidente la tendenza, anzi il bisogno, di dividere il male dal bene, di poter partegeggiare, di ripetere i1 gesto di Cristo nel Giudizio Universale: qui i giusti, Ia i reprobi.2 In the world of the univers concentrationnaire, it was difficult in many cases to decide just who were the victims and who were the oppressors.3 In the Lager, there was not always a clear distinction between the two camps. The dark space between good and evil was often filled with what Levi calls "base and pathetic creatures ... [who] sometimes possessed both qualities at once."4 Much as Dante set aside a special place in hell for the neutral angels who "were not rebels, nor faithful to God, but were for 32 The Grey Zone and the Neutral Sinners themselves," so Levi has set aside a "grey zone" for collaborators, low- level functionaries, and prisoner-guards. Both of these categories warrant our attention, as does a third,...

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