Friday 28 March 2014
Primo Levi, Pista - and Generation Y
I have just discovered, rather late in the day, I admit, Primo Levi. I found this short extract from "The Truce" very poignant.
After his release from, or rather abandonment in, Auschwitz, and various experiences in Russia and Eastern Europe, Levi, and his companions are coming to the end of a slow circuitous railway journey back to Italy. A group of other ex-prisoners and "displaced persons" stays together in one wagon, but there are occasional departures from their company, and some additions, one of whom joined them, apparently simply because a member of the group has been kind to him and given him some bread.
Nobody knew [the other new guest]; he was a robust youth, barefoot, dressed in a Red Army jacket and trousers. He spoke only Hungarian and none of us were able to understand him . . . He was well received; one more mouth to feed was not a worry. He was an intelligent, cheerful boy; as soon as the train started he introduced himself with great dignity. His name was Pista and he was fourteen. Father and Mother? Here it was more difficult to understand each other; I found a pencil stub and a piece of paper, and drew a man, a woman and a child between them and said "Pista"; then I waited. Pista turned grave , and then sketched a drawing which was all too painfully obvious: a house, an aeroplane, a falling bomb. Then he cancelled the house, and drew a large smoking heap beside it. But he was not in the mood for sad things; he screwed up the sheet, asked for another and drew a cask, with remarkable precision: the bottom and all the visible staves in the right perspective; then the hoops, and the hole with the tap. We looked at each other, puzzled: what did the message mean? Pista laughed happily; then drew himself next to it, with a hammer in one hand and a saw in the other. Hadn't we understood yet? That was his trade, he was a cooper.
Everybody like him immediately; moreover he tried to be useful; he swept the floor every morning, enthusiastically washed the bowls, went to fetch water and was happy when we sent him "shopping" to his compatriots at the various halts. He could make himself understood in Italian by the time we reached the Brenner; he sang beautiful songs of his country which no-one understood, and then sought to explain them with gestures, making us all laugh wholeheartedly, himself most of all . . .We asked him why he had come with us, what brought him to Italy; but we were unable to understand, partly because of the difficulty of conversing, but above all because he himself did not know. He had wandered around stations like a stray dog for months; he had followed the first human creature who had looked at him with pity.
The Truce, pp408 -10; Abacus edition, 2013
I gather one of the main tribulations of Generation Y is that, because of unemployment and soaring housing costs, many are having to live with their parents until they're in their 30s. Tough, but if they read the above it may help them put their problems into perspective