Clearly, Levi needs to exorcise his guilt through his dire need to tell and re-tell his ‘ghastly tale’. This urgency in fact recalls the protagonist in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who is doomed to keep repeating the story of a terrible sea voyage that went fatally wrong after he had been goaded on to shoot an albatross to prove his macho. The echo of Coleridge is no coincidence. Literati will also recognize that the first line of the poem manifests the use of intertextuality since it is an Italian translation of a verse in Coleridge’s poem. Its significance is emphasised by noting Levi’s need to express himself in his own language which the translators sensitively left in the original while translating it in the second line.
Levi makes use of powerful negative adjectives such as: ‘tinged with death’, ‘uneasy’ and ‘pale’. The first stanza in The Survivor is voiced in the first person, which underlines Levi’s personal agony. But it also provides a contrast to the third person used throughout the first half of the second stanza. The shift in narrative voice is thus pre-empted by the agony of surviving Auschwitz for Levi cannot get himself speak in the first person all the time.
Levi’s idiosyncratic detached voice (which also infuses If This Is A Man) points to the caginess of people born in Torino and its vicinity. More significantly, it expresses a remarkable lack of self-pity despite the searing pain exacerbated by guilty survival rendering his sparse and precise diction even more poignant because it reverberates the brutalization of both perpetrator and victim of brutality. This explains why Levi would later reiterate that the ‘worst’ rather than the ‘fittest’ survived the extermination camps.
This same indirect narrative voice in The Survivor also ties in with the indistinct, unidentifiable faces of Jews who have been exterminated beyond trace. The nightmarish quality of Levi’s haunting dreams is clearly conveyed through the adjectives describing “his companion’s faces” as they resurface in the ‘uncertain hour’ – “nebulous in the mist” and “Livid in the first faint light”. Their grey colour is the colour of death, in Levi’s mind rendered infinitely more harrowing by the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust.
The entire scene is depressing with heavy, dull words like: ‘burden’, ‘death’ and ‘uneasy’. Worse still he is vividly seeing them as “submerged people” – submerged because they are overcome by abject starvation, humiliation, and a horrifying death. “Submerged” also indicates the cruelty of the ultra-refined psychological warfare underlining the Auschwitz strategy, based upon brain-washing victims into believing that they are no better than sewer rats and therefore they deserve to suffer.
Levi’s haunting memories of the indescribable trauma he survived reaches a feverish pitch in the second stanza, which opens with a long rambling verse that in turn gives way to a series of short and stark verses. Levi’s use of punctuation in fact creates the staccato rhythm of his haunted dreams that make him re-live and re-live the Auschwitz experience. Thus the “heavy burden of their dreams” refers to both past and present suffering – am incurable suffering on the loop.
Significantly, the agonizing tone and suggestive use of punctuation indicate a mesh of past and present. Indeed, the cinematic quality of the shift of time brings to mind cinema’s voice over and fade-in techniques which essentially strive to reflect and reenact the workings of the mind.
Levi’s shifting from past to present is important to note because it ties in and reinforces the tormented voice as well as the ghastly atmosphere of The Survivor. The passage of time also links up with the shift in narrative voice. In fact, in the second half of the second stanza, Levi goes back to the first person because he is screaming out his own delirious plea to be left in peace. (Note quotation marks). But the haunting faces will not go away and his tormented cries startle us with his guilt complex:
No one died in my place. No one.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.
The reference to ordinary, everyday existence is definitely worth noting because in The Survivor, the most ordinary, mundane actions drive home the intense guilt of Levi’s survival. The reader is made to feel his torture as he reaches out to an audience that in the poet’s mind cannot understand his feelings of guilt, and yet must be lashed out in an attempt to make sense of his incurably traumatised life.
Seventy-five years after the end of WW2, images of the Nazi concentration camps are as unnerving and gut-wrenching as ever. As a war poem, The Survivor does not make us ponder on the heroism and suffering of soldiers because it is a harrowing wail of victims of ethnic cleansing. This poem helps us to remember the anguished cry of Holocaust victims and survivors which should never be silenced.
What should also never be stifled or smothered is asking how and why people can be/become so vicious. Ever insightful, Levi knew that to describe the depth and scale of sheer evil as monstrous is far too superficial an understanding of man’s descent into brutality: ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’
Perhaps the most burning question is how can the existence of evil render the existence of God possible, more so if we believe that God is goodness? That traumatic experiences lead to a paralysis and/or negation of faith is more than understandable. Perhaps there is no problem if there is no God.
Our finite and limited minds ever at the mercy of emotional sway rather than reason and revelation can never comprehend the problem of evil, a reflection that is pertinent to all of us whether we are believers or not, whether we are seeking to believe or not. But the impossibility to grasp malice does not exonerate our propensity, our collusion or our apathy towards evil.
Do we need a religion’s dogma to recognise evil for what it is?
What are we willing to do in the face of evil?