A cir­cus train of magic

A sur­real and satir­i­cal col­lec­tion be­lat­edly con­cludes the trans­la­tion of Primo Levi’s ou­vre, writes Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT is 20 years since Primo Levi fell to his death, a death that was al­most cer­tainly self- in­flicted or, as Elie Wiesel sug­gests, was in­flicted 43 years be­fore when Levi passed through the gates of Auschwitz. As post­hu­mous an­niver­saries go, 20 years is a mod­est one, and this book, a col­lec­tion of very short sto­ries, is a mod­est way of mark­ing it. It per­forms two valu­able tasks, how­ever: it con­cludes the be­lated trans­la­tion into English of Levi’s in­dis­pens­able oeu­vre; and it shines an oblique and re­veal­ing side­light on a man whose self- il­lu­mi­na­tion served in turn to il­lu­mi­nate the dark­est episode in hu­man his­tory: the Nazi geno­cide of Euro­pean Jews.

Pub­lished over nearly 40 years — from 1949 to 1986 — the sto­ries col­lected in A Tran­quil Star are di­vided into two chrono­log­i­cal sec­tions, the first cor­re­spond­ing to the years when Levi was work­ing as an in­dus­trial chemist, the sec­ond to the 10 years be­tween re­tire­ment and death when he be­came, in ef­fect, a pro­fes­sional writer. The trans­la­tion by Ann Gold­stein and Alessan­dra Bastagli is, as far as I can tell, su­perb — en­tirely faith­ful to the lyri­cal pre­ci­sion and cool com­mand of Levi’s prose. ( It’s as well to keep an eye on th­ese things. Se questo e un uomo — If This is a Man — be­came, in the mouth of its Amer­i­can pub­lisher, the un­par­don­ably up­lift­ing Sur­vival in Auschwitz .)

Most of the sto­ries in A Tran­quil Star are in the mag­i­cal re­al­ist vein. Levi’s modus operandi is to con­trive a dis­tur­bance in the nat­u­ral or­der ( a bu­reau­cratic task that kills; a paint with the power to pre­vent mis­for­tune), thereby throw­ing some as­pect of life or the moral uni­verse into re­lief. Thus, we find the role of cen­sor en­trusted not to men, but to an­i­mals, and glad­i­a­tor­mata­dors who fight not bulls nor each other, but cars. On the whole, this syn­thetic approach pays div­i­dends: the sto­ries go by like a cir­cus train, a daz­zling pro­ces­sion of satir­i­cal riffs, sur­real sketches and gen­tle fan­tasies.

Given what we know about Levi, and about one year in his life in par­tic­u­lar, 1944 — the year he spent in Auschwitz, the year recorded in If This is a Man — the temp­ta­tion to treat th­ese science fic­tions as science fa­bles is hard to re­sist. And in­deed there are a num­ber of sto­ries that lend them­selves to such a read­ing.

In The Mol­e­cule’s De­fi­ance , for ex­am­ple, a batch of resin ‘‘ gela­tinises’’ and be­comes a ho­mogenised mon­ster- mol­e­cule, a chem­i­cal golem that could very well stand for the way in which en­tire so­ci­eties can morph into hor­ri­fy­ing ver­sions of them­selves, a prey to ha­treds and mass hys­te­ria: ‘‘ Among all my ex­pe­ri­ences of work,’’ writes Levi: none is so alien and in­im­i­cal as that of a batch that spoils, what­ever the cause, whether the dam­age is se­ri­ous or slight, if you’re guilty or not. A fire or an ex­plo­sion can be a much more de­struc­tive ac­ci­dent, even tragic, but it’s not dis­grace­ful like a gela­tin­i­sa­tion . . . The unique ‘ mol­e­cule’, de­formed but gi­gan­tic, that is born and dies in your hands is an ob­scene mes­sage and sym­bol: a sym­bol of other ugly things with­out re­ver­sal or rem­edy that ob­scure our fu­ture, of the preva­lence of con­fu­sion over or­der, and of un­seemly death over life. The key words here are ‘‘ guilty’’ and ‘‘ dis­grace­ful’’. As Levi sug­gested in The Drowned and the Saved , shame is the lot of the Holo­caust sur­vivor, and it isn’t just sur­vivor guilt but the ef­fect of hav­ing seen hu­man­ity at its most depraved and bes­tial that tor­ments him to his dy­ing day. ( Martin Amis calls this ‘‘ species shame’’.)

Con­sid­er­ing the words that greeted Levi and his fel­low pris­on­ers as they en­tered Auschwitz — Ar­beit Macht Frei : Work Brings Free­dom — it stands as some­thing of a moral vic­tory that Levi was able to re­claim work as a con­so­la­tion and an in­spi­ra­tion. The sci­en­tific trope/ approach comes up time and again in his books, most ob­vi­ously in

The Pe­ri­odic Ta­ble . ( Levi, the nov­el­ist Philip Roth wrote, was more ‘‘ chemist- artist’’ than ‘‘ artist- chemist’’.) Some of the finest pas­sages in this book are de­scrip­tions of work, sci­en­tific and oth­er­wise.

Of course, such de­scrip­tions de­mand pre­ci­sion and Levi is noth­ing if not pre­cise. But he is also aware of the lim­its of lan­guage. The ti­tle story, A Tran­quil Star , be­gins with a won­der­ful demon­stra­tion of the fact that lan­guage has ‘‘ our di­men­sions’’. Note how the lan­guage of fairy­tales serves as the per­fect foil for the di­gres­sion: Once upon a time, some­where in the uni­verse very far away from here, lived a tran­quil star . . . This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enor­mous: and here a re­porter’s dif­fi­cul­ties be­gin. We have writ­ten ‘ very far’, ‘ big’, ‘ hot’, ‘ enor­mous’: Aus­tralia is very far, an ele­phant is big and a house is big­ger, this morn­ing I had a hot bath, Ever­est is enor­mous. It’s clear that some­thing in our lex­i­con isn’t work­ing.

The star ex­plodes, but news of the ex­plo­sion ar­rives as a ‘‘ barely per­cep­ti­ble spot’’ on a pho­to­graphic plate in a re­mote ob­ser­va­tory, a spot that metaphor­i­cally fig­ures any num­ber of ( hu­man) catas­tro­phes to which that other record­ing equip­ment — lan­guage — is nec­es­sar­ily less than ad­e­quate.

Again, the gates of Auschwitz loom. But I don’t want to give the reader the im­pres­sion that the Holo­caust colours ev­ery­thing in this book. That black hole sucks in a lot of light, but much of the ma­te­rial from A Tran­quil Star man­ages to es­cape its pull. For this book bears a dif­fer­ent kind of wit­ness. In the end, it is a cel­e­bra­tion of a unique and al­chem­i­cal imag­i­na­tion, the imag­i­na­tion of pris­oner 174517, oth­er­wise known as Primo Levi.

Richard King is a Perth- based lit­er­ary critic.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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