Friday, 17 December 2010

Never Forget

There is a poem by Italian chemist and author Primo Levi which sends a shiver down my spine to this day, and not just because of his experiences in Auschwitz. In 1987, Levi was found dead at the bottom of the stairwell in this apartment building. While suicide was ruled by his coroner, many of his friends commented on the fact that - as a chemist - Levi would have been more likely to take his own life through intentional poisoning rather than risking paralysis from the three story plunge. Regardless, Elie Wiesel pointed out that "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier", bringing his haunting past back to the front of our mind, where one would think it resided permanently for him. I have reproduced the poem below:

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Birdsong (Part 1 - France 1910)

Note: The following comments are based solely on the first 47 pages of the book.

The opening to the novel presents an idyllic France and introduces Stephen Wraysford, along with us, to the Azaire family. We learn that René Azaire owns a fabric factory in Amiens, which is on the verge of a strike due to the proposed implementation of machinery and loss of jobs. On the first night of his stay with the Azaires, Stephen hears noises coming from another room in the house. Investigating the disturbance, it turns out to be "a woman's voice...almost like sobbing, interrupted by a more material sound of brief impact". It seems probable that domestic violence is taking place in the room, and Stephen "tense[s] his hands into fists by his ribs", before running away. In his notebook, Stephen takes notes (in code as to not be discovered) but is surprised to see that "what struck him most he had not written about at all".

Later, when Stephen confronts Isabelle Azaire about the noises he heard the previous night, she tells him he "must not humiliate" her, and that he should "respect [her] position". She is clearly afraid of what her husband might do if Stephen causes trouble, which is common with victims of domestic violence, and so she shrugs off his offer of help. The chapter ends with her "shaking her head, as though in defiance of some unwanted feeling".

We are introduced to René Azaire's friend Bérard and his wife, who is described solely as Madamé Berard. We get the impression that Bérard is a frequent guest at the Azaire household, as he arrives promptly after dinner on both nights Stephen stays there. He comes of as a very pompous, somewhat rude man who invites other people to agree with him, but "cutting them off before they had the chance to spoil his version of harmony with actual thoughts of their own". Madamé Berard, who is described as "having eyes only for her husband", frequently cheers on Berard and calls him "papa". I did some reaserch on this word and, as expected, it simply means 'father'. Quite why Madamé Berard calls her husband 'father' has not yet been explained, but judging by the wink of agreement Berard and Azaire shared when Azaire sent his wife to bed, it could very well be possible that their relationship is failing too.