Primo Levi's Alchemy
Don't read the Holocaust into everything he wrote.
It is a curse of those who write about the Holocaust that they are eternally identified with their horrific, unapproachable subject, even when they try to take their lives in other directions. Elie Wiesel has written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, but he will always be thought of first as the author of Night. Twenty years after its publication, Paul Celan's audiences were still pestering him to recite "Deathfugue," his canonical poem about the camps ("Black milk of daybreak we drink you at evening …").
Primo Levi, whose memoir Survival in Auschwitz (its American title)has become one of the defining testimonies of the Holocaust, has suffered a similar injustice. Returning from the camp in 1946 at age 25, Levi went on to have a successful career as an industrial chemist while simultaneously rising to prominence as one of postwar Italy's most beloved writers. His memoir, first published in 1947, initially sank into obscurity, but his essays and short stories ran in some of the country's best-known periodicals, and his fiction won numerous literary prizes. Yet in the English-speaking world, he has been defined solely through his works about the Holocaust, which also include The Periodic Table (1984), his autobiography through chemistry, and The Drowned and the Saved (published posthumously in 1988), his final and most brutal meditation on evil.
It is tempting to greet A Tranquil Star—a selection of 17 of Levi's short stories appearing in English for the first time—as a source to be mined for additional clues about his experience at Auschwitz and its effects on his life afterward. But this impulse is misguided—not least because the stories in this book, the first significant work of Levi's to be published in America in nearly two decades, offer very little in the way of such clues. In fact, if their author were not Primo Levi, nothing would connect them with the Holocaust at all. These stories, which span Levi's career—the first was originally published in 1949, the last in 1986, just a few months before his death by suicide 20 years ago this week—reveal a lighter side of Levi, a man who smiled at the memory of his mountaineering exploits and sighed at the grindings of bureaucracy. But they also reveal a scientist who was unafraid to let his profound physical understanding of the universe and all its components shade into the metaphysical. Above all, the stories are the work of a writer intent on calling attention to the discrepancies between the world as it appears on paper and as people actually experience it—a writer who tried to make each of his stories "a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and the human race."
If I had read the bulk of A Tranquil Star without knowing who the author was, I would have guessed Borges. The stories are amazingly diverse in form, ranging from a memoiristic account of a mountain-climbing expedition to an open letter written by aliens and addressed to an Italian TV star. But the majority are metaphysical parables, by turns haunting and humorous, written in Levi's signature dry, plain-spoken tone. These "fables" take an extraordinary situation—a kangaroo at an dinner party, a country where literary censorship is carried out by chickens—and recount it in utterly matter-of-fact terms, with an attention to physical detail that hints at Levi's scientific background and a diffident irony that understates the gravity of his subject matter. "Bureau of Vital Statistics" depicts the working life of Arrigo, whose job is to dream up causes of death for people around the world. Not unlike a fiction writer, he enjoys building entire characters out of the spare names and identifying characteristics he finds on his desk each morning:
The first index card of the day … bore the name of Yen Ch'ing Hsu, fifty-eight years old, single, born in Han Tou, where he still resided, dockworker, no illnesses to speak of. … Yen still had thirty-six days to live and Arrigo imagined him against the backdrop of an exotic sunset, sitting on a roll of cable before a turbid sea the color of a ripe banana; he was exhausted by his daily work, sad and alone. A man like this doesn't fear death and doesn't seek it, either, but he may act carelessly. Arrigo thought about it for a moment and then had him fall from a scaffold: he wouldn't suffer much.
Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.