One of the most fascinating figures of Western literature and culture throughout is the protagonist of Homer’s epic poem, Ulysses. His story is such an insight into the human soul and so rich with adventures, that a number of writers used Ulysses as a script for their works, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to James Joyce’s notorious novel.
From this viewpoint Ulysses represents the specimen of a conception of life that transcends mere literature. His allure dwells in the profound humanity, manifest in his very character: despite war and fate against him, in his strife to return to his family Ulysses acquires knowledge through experience, without ulterior motive and for the sake of knowledge itself. His legacy encompasses a great wealth of aspects as well as contradictions of Western civilization: from the nobility of discovery and human reason to the subtle complexity of deceit and fraud. Finally Ulysses is also a hero of memory and the model for a narration about incredible stories that happen in faraway places.
This is a seminal feature valid for Primo Levi as well. The author of books like Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved that are crucial not only for the testimony of the Holocaust but for the understanding of modern history as a whole, Levi always referenced Ulysses throughout his oeuvre. As he himself claims in many interviews, after his return from Auschwitz he felt like Ulysses in the court of the King of the Phaeacians, telling of adventures that nobody else could since confirm, like Job in the Bible, “Nobody else who experienced it is still alive.” In other passages he also imparts the most frightening dream he had in Auschwitz, a dream that was common to many other prisoners and that is confirmed by a good deal of other testimonies. The dream was about eventually returning home after the ordeal, and despite the happiness of still being alive and among family and friends, realizing that nobody is listening to your stories, to the ghastly experiences you lived through. On the contrary, friends and family look on in another direction while you speak, or rather they look at you as though you were transparent. Then they stand up and leave. This is the nightmare of a breakdown of communication, of an impossibility to share experiences: without reciprocity the same memory is utterly useless and the testimony in vain.
Yet there is another reference to Ulysses in Levi’s work that is extremely telling. It is the famous chapter of Survival in Auschwitz entitled “Ulysses’ Canto”, apparently evocating XXVI Canto of Dante’s Inferno in which the figure of the Greek hero stands out. In this passage, Levi recounts one of his most harrowing and revealing experiences: while inside the camp, the pain of recollecting what being a man should mean.
This pain is narrated through an exceptional moment of reprieve. Levi and one of his inmates, the young Frenchman Jean, referred to as “the Pikolo”, are permitted to go to the kitchen and carry the soup for the patrol tank’s entire squadron. This is an assignment particularly coveted since the kitchen is far from the work site and it takes an hour to go back and forth. One hour where you can rest from the harsh work without danger of being beaten. Pikolo asks Primo to teach him Italian and the latter starts quoting the famous passage from Dante’s Inferno in which Ulysses’ monologue reads: “Considerate la vostra semenza:/ fatti non foste a viver come bruti/ ma a seguir virtute e conoscenza” (“Consider well the seed that gave you birth:/ you were not made to live your lives as brutes/ but to be followers of worth and knowledge”). Levi tries to remember the whole passage by heart and translate it into French, but his memory fails him and he cannot remember all the verses. What is more, Levi realizes what is really at stake here: remembering Dante’s passage in its entirety means to rebuild an image of the self, and of mankind, that resists the offence and the blasphemy perpetrated by the Nazis.
The recollection of Ulysses’ human dignity (or rather, of Dante’s Ulysses) goes beyond this banal episode: its urgency is existential. In the text, when Levi foresees the deeper implications of Dante’s words, he understands that the time before stepping into the soup queue is too short: “It is late. It is late”, he writes, “I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this… before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again”. Dante’s verses are a glimpse of light in the darkness of the camp, the link by means of memory to a normal condition that has been buried in the prisoners’ minds in order to survive. Still this message has no meaning without reciprocity. In the passage, referring to Pikolo’s attentiveness, Levi concludes “He has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all the men who toil, and with us in particular; and it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for soup on our shoulders.”
The story is harrowing, although many unsolved aspects remain. As noted by critics, the real hero of this story is neither Levi nor Ulysses, but Pikolo. The young Frenchman understands not only the urgency of the moment, but that with the very act of listening he helps Levi to survive. Again, the memory of the previous world gains meaning only through reciprocity. Yet there is more: reporting his attempt to translate Dante from Italian to French, Levi not only addresses his inmate Pikolo but us as readers. The message is meaningful only if the reader works it out. In fact there is no actual translation into French in the text, while Pikolo’s own words are not reported either. In fact, it would be very revealing to know Pikolo’s own memory of this episode.
Pikolo’s real name is Jean Samuel. He survived Auschwitz too and met with Levi many times after the war: he is still alive today. His story is now narrated in a moving book in which he remembers not only his life and camp experiences, but also the friendship with Levi. Published in French in 2007 Il m’appelait Pikolo was translated into Italian last year but not yet into English. Interestingly, he remembers the Ulysses episode vividly, but his memory is very different from Levi’s. He points out some details of his person that in Levi’s account are important but they simply do not match with reality. Instead he remembers the same day as crucial for his survival too, but for different reasons.
They had the opportunity to talk about their families and experiences at home: a glimpse of humanity, something extremely uncommon in Auschwitz. Samuel concludes: “Today I still wonder about this mystery of memory: both of us had the feeling of a crucial, unforgettable meeting, although that remembrance was not grounded in the same gesture, the same words, the same emotions.”
“Memory is a wonderful means, but fallible”, claimed Levi in many occasions. While using it as a powerful device for gaining knowledge and truth, he warned against the dangers of its absoluteness and institutionalization. If not integrated into reciprocity, memory can be the standpoint for unhoped-for accomplishments but also the excuse for new hatred and violence. As Ulysses’ original Homeric account reads.