The part of Primo Levi’s La Trève that resonates for me this morning: during the demented and surrealistic trip that takes him from Auschwitz back to Turin, a man settles into the boxcar he shares with DPs of every description. The man immediately becomes the group’s designated target. Or as Levi puts it, the predestined victim every group of humans seems to need as a scapegoat. The man is a young Italian soldier, of a kind, gentle and pleasant disposition. His flaw? He was one of the Carabinieri. For reasons no one can ascertain, the Carabinieri had an obscene and grotesque reputation including the legend of their abominable pledge to kill both of their own parents. Clearly such a one who pretended to be kind, gentle and pleasant deserved nothing but scorn, derision and ill-treatment.
The cruel taunts and vexations ceased one day. At one of their multiple and unpredictable stops, a young boy joined the group. Bare-footed and wearing a Red Army vest, the boy approached the Scapegoat who shared some bread with him. To say he stuck like glue is putting it mildly. The boy was fourteen years old, his relatives had died when a bomb destroyed their home. He explained this through a drawing, then crumpled it. E finito. That part of his life story was over. He drew something else: a barrel. No one understood. Laughing and happy, he drew himself next to the barrel, holding a hammer and a saw.
He was a barrel maker. He was alive, someone had fed him. His gratitude knew no bounds. He swept the boxcar, fetched water and treated the erstwhile scapegoat as his older brother.
I say erstwhile because the boy’s happy disposition lifted the cloud that hung over the kind and gentle soul who had strayed, unfortunately, into the dread Carabinieri. (At this point in the telling, Primo Levi doesn’t specify who picked up the mantle as Scapegoat, but no matter.) Why was the boy going to Italy? No reason other than the fact he had been wandering alone for months like a stray dog. He had followed the first human to show him some kindness.
Voilà. Why this matters this morning (and every other morning, whether mentioned or not): because the world is full of mean-spiritedness, hatred, resentment, violence and horror. All of these lurk and spring out when least expected, from the darkness of our own mind or of someone else’s. This is fact. It isn’t the whole story or there wouldn’t be anyone left to mention it, or anything else.