This graphic novel is an intriguing proposition. Briefly, in 100 pages, it tells the survivor’s story of Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who was held in Auschwitz after serving in the Italian resistance. Here his story is self narrated, told to children in a class he’s been invited to speak to by their teacher. It’s a work of fiction in the manner of its presentation, but Primo Levi was a genuine Auschwitz survivor, who wrote at length about his experiences and shared them with the world through his books. The words that Matteo Mastragostino has put into his mouth are influenced by Levi’s writing and interviews.
Because of the way the story is presented, it flits between two narratives: the present, where he’s an old man being grilled by school children, who don’t hold back their questions and opinions; then into the past, as we see the horror of the concentration camp through Levi’s personal viewpoint and experiences.
This makes it a little loose and bitty. The classroom element sets a certain scene and demonstrates what an excellent orator Levi must have been, to even attempt to explain the unexplainable to a room of children. Meanwhile, the flashbacks give us a jarring visual reminder of the true emaciated horror of the prisoners’ often short lives.
Alessandro Ranghiasci’s visuals balance this well. There’s a cartoon mawkishness to some of the modern-day children featured in the book, but little that isn’t dark and horrible in the depiction of the concentration camp. There’s also a mundanity to the camp, though. It’s not depicted as the fiery hell factory we see in the opening scenes of Son of Saul, but a horrible, sparse, overcrowded camp.
It’s a brave topic for a graphic novel, not least because we’ve already got what many consider to be the seminal concentration camp survival graphic novel in the form of Maus. That, too, is a third hand account, but Art Spiegleman’s blood relationship with the survivor perhaps helps him bring more depth to his character.
However, we can’t argue with the fact that Primo Levi’s story is a horrible tale that deserves to be brought to the light, in the hope that humanity will always remember, and never stoop to such depths again.