Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Prisoners of their own stories



Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of The Ancient Mariner deals in its own metaphoric way with obsession and guilt, with the kind of trauma that simply demands attention and goes on demanding it even when it seems the occasion is long past and its ripples and ramifications should have succumbed to the mitigating processes of time.

Primo LeviThe Ancient Mariner is haunted by his story and doomed to repeat it. So when he waylays the Wedding Guest outside the church, 'He holds him with his glittering eye/The Wedding-Guest stood still/And listens like a three years' child:/The Mariner hath his will.'

It is like the world of our dreams in which bizarre logic rules and ghostly, weirdly recognisable figures dominate. 'I pass, like night, from land to land,' says the Ancient Mariner, 'I have strange power of speech;/That moment that his face I see/I know the man that must hear me:/ To him my tale I teach.'

No one could have been further from the world of the Romantic poets than holocaust survivor Primo Levi (pictured, circa 1950s). In the final chapter of his book, The Truce, which is the sequel to his magnificent but harrowing Auschwitz 'memoir', If This is a Man, Levi recounts details of a recurring dream in which he is back in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

The realities of the camp are so overwhelming, so pressing that they still, years later, dominate his mind, his imagination, his memory, even his sleep.

... a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals ... I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short, in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat.

And in fact, as the dream proceeds, slowly and brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses, and disintegrates around me, the scenery, the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed into chaos; I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager [Auschwitz] once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager.


"Levi was haunted by his story and only death could absolve him from having to tell it — again and again, in one form or another."


Levi, an Italian Jew and a brilliant scientist — his The Periodic Table was voted in 2006 by the London Royal Institution on to the short list of candidates for the best scientific book ever written — was deported by the Germans along with other Italian Jews to Auschwitz in February 1944 and remained there until the camp was liberated by the advancing Red Army nearly a year later. Strokes of luck and dogged endurance saw him emerge, changed beyond recognition, when the Russians opened the gates.

Levi returned eventually — after imprisonment in Russia and a tortuous, painful and circuitous journey — to his native Turin where he lived for the rest of his life in the house of his boyhood. He pursued his scientific career with much success, he married and he and his wife, Lucia Morpurgo, had two children, Renzo and Lisa. But like the Ancient Mariner, Levi was the prisoner of his story. He wrote If This is a Man to tell that story, to carry out what he saw as the critical task of bearing witness, and he became one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as he continued to bear witness one way and another in later books.

If Levi had lived on with that gift for durability against the odds that saw him through the worst atrocities of an atrocious time, he would have turned 97 on the last day of this month. He did not live on because on 11 April 1987 he fell into the stairwell of his third floor Turin apartment and died, smashed and broken, on the concrete below. Whether he committed suicide was, and continues to be, in dispute, but whatever the truth of that, Levi was haunted by his story and only death could absolve him from having to tell it — again and again, in one form or another.

Some day, one of Australia's asylum seekers, of whose suffering Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is paradoxically both proud and oblivious, will, like Levi and with the same sense of dread and horror, tell his or her story to ensure that someone bears witness; and to confirm that all of us are implicated because, no matter how justified or disengaged many Australians seem to feel, in John Donne's chilling words 'No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.'


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Primo Levi, asylum seekers, Peter Dutton



submit a comment

Existing comments

Erudite! Indeed poetic in a sense.

john frawley | 25 July 2016  

Hopefully, the day is not far off when one or more of the asylum seekers we have treated (are treating) so dreadfully tells the story on the world stage. The notion that by doing this we are saving lots more people from drowning at sea is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard.

Brian Finlayson | 25 July 2016  

Well done Brian.

Jim Jones | 25 July 2016  

A passionate, eloquent, truthful, lucid reflection from one who also bears witness. If only there were more who did not turn a blind eye and deaf ear, or by other means disengage themselves from the implications of what is being done in our name! Thank you for this salutary reminder that what is being deliberately kept out of sight will nevertheless be given a voice in time.

Jena Woodhouse | 25 July 2016  

Thank you for your reflections, the literary and historical references you choose are most illuminating of the current situation of asylum seekers in Australia, and in fact of the global social and political situation. Unfortunately cogent arguments seem to have no impact in front of the apathy, and 'liquid' fear that seems to have infected our societies. Thank you for keeping the discussion going.

antonina | 25 July 2016  

From the Wikipedia article on Levi: "Christopher Hitchens' book The Portable Atheist, a collection of extracts of atheist texts, is dedicated to the memory of Levi, "who had the moral fortitude to refuse false consolation even while enduring the 'selection' process in Auschwitz". The dedication quotes Levi in The Drowned and the Saved, asserting, "I too entered the Lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day."[38]" Of course, we won't know the full story of Primo Levi's life and thoughts until that Day when all actions of God, humans, angels and demons are made transparent to all, but Hitchens' account brings to mind Milton's Lucifer who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. Why were the consolations of Judaism "refused" by the intellect of this son of Abraham?

Roy Chen Yee | 25 July 2016  

After his moving account of the tragic heroism of Primo Levi’s life, Brian Matthews deftly equates the horrors of the Nazi holocaust with the situation of detained asylum seekers who have sought to force their way into Australia, often with false claims of persecution. In his final paragraph he also implies that those who have supported the detention of asylum-seekers will one day feel the same shame as those who silently condoned Auschwitz etc. Not likely. In fact it may well be the other way round. The AS lobby will one day be asked why they supported policies that resulted in 1200 deaths at sea, including several hundred children, and which denied sanctuary to about 50,000 genuine refugees and asylum-seekers rotting in Middle Eastern refugee camps because their places in Australia’s humanitarian intake quota were taken by often dubious asylum-seekers. The lobby was able to pressure the Rudd Labor government to reverse the Howard government’s border protection regime in 2008 and soon tens of thousands were arriving in Australia yearly by boat. Thankfully the Abbott government stopped this unconscionable situation. Now only genuine refugees are being admitted to Australia, those who have been bombed out of their homes, those such as the Yezidis who were subjected to the most hideous ISIS persecution and genocide - those who really needed our help. When the full AS story is told it is more likely that answers will be demanded from the AS lobby than those who opposed it. Why did you support policies that caused such terrible loss of life and prevented genuine asylum-seekers coming to Australia? But I suspect they’ll weasel their way out of it. The PC left who supported Stalin during the height of the 1930s purges that saw millions consigned to their deaths in the gulag seemed to have done so. The same seems true for leftists who turned a blind eye to the atrocities of China’s cultural revolution from 1966-76 and reports of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal policies in Cambodia from 1975-9. Hopefully though the bell will toll long and loud for the AS lobby in coming years.

Dennis | 26 July 2016  

The only terrorist is fear. The only security is love... All is One.

Thijs van Hillegondsberg | 26 July 2016  

Thank you for your quite heart-rending article. The many Australians who are disstressed by the horrific treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, legitimised by both main political parties, find it difficult to continue to hope for any change of heart soon. There are articulate people who have experienced life in detention giving us their story but only on social media. There are not enough Australians who know or care. No doubt at some future time there will be someone whose story will resonate and change hearts. In the meantime, though, detainees are being tortured and going mad.

Anna | 26 July 2016  

Brian,I have visited several Detention Camps in Darwin almost daily for 6 months where I have met real people, listened to their stories face to face. Many sought out our country as a place of safety and a refuge, free from hunger, torture and war, a place where hope was possible. Who am I to judge what they are fleeing from and why they are here. Their eyes often told of being forced to leave their homes and families, to seek a safe place and a fresh start for the only life they have and for their families. They have chosen our homeland to work and build a new life. I learned they have much to offer and on behalf of all, I welcomed them as sisters and brothers, proud they have chosen our land as a place to live out the project of our common humanity. Brian, I too hope the heroic stories I heard will be told and celebrated as part of the saga of the continuing settlement of Australia by our refugees.

David Folkes | 30 July 2016  

Similar Articles

Don Dale abuse is a symptom of a sick justice culture

  • Julie Kimber
  • 27 July 2016

The 4 Corners report into the treatment of children in a NT juvenile justice facility is a stark and grotesque demonstration of state abuse of power. As a result John Elferink, NT Corrections Minister, has been sacked, and the Prime Minister has announced a royal commission into the actions at Don Dale. This is a good start, but there is much more to be done. We need to question a culture that willingly imprisons the most vulnerable, and puts up with a system where not all are equal before the law.


A cautious response to mass killings and police violence

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 28 July 2016

When confronted by violent killings we should be appalled, identify sympathetically with the victims and with those affected indirectly by these tragedies, and also take a respectful interest in the complex lives of the perpetrators and the relationships that contributed to the shootings. The pause before making larger judgments respects the complexity of motivation and of social interactions involved in the killings, and offers a base for reflecting on how we may lessen the possibility of them happening in future.