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