Many meanings

cropped-stars.jpgPrimo Levi A Tranquil Star
Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)

‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?

While some stories may seem impersonal at first sight, underlying them all is the all-too-human individual. They may range from the semi-autobiographical to the deeply satirical but it’s the humanity that Levi is known for that comes across. ‘The Death of Marinese’, the earliest tale and the one that opens this collection, is about the Italian resistance: two partisans are captured by the Germans, and one tries to summon up the strength and courage to ensure he doesn’t go down without a fight and the chance to inflict damage on his country’s enemies. Detailing what goes through Marinese’s thoughts in his last few minutes is powerful evidence of Levi’s ability to enter another’s mind; it helps to know that Levi experienced something very similar in 1943. ‘Bear Meat’, set in the mountains around Turin, is a Russian dolls nest of tales about climbing, with daring and machismo as aspects of the recklessness that marks out the teenage male. ‘Fra Diavolo on the Po’ is a piece of black humour, being a memoir of his wartime military career — such as it was.

Another tale that strongly held my attention was ‘The Sorcerers’. We are all familiar with the notion of modern Westerners impressing isolated peoples with their technology, giving the impression that they can wield magic; H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines is a good fictional exemplar. What happens when, for example, two English anthropologists studying the Siriono tribe in eastern Bolivia, suddenly find themselves bereft of that technology, and are imprisoned until they can reproduce it? Will they last out until outside help comes? The Siriono too seem themselves unable to reproduce some of the technology of their forebears, for example the ability to make fire. Levi’s conclusion, that “not in every place and not in every era is humanity destined to advance” is apt not just for the Siriono but also for the supposedly superior Europeans studying them.

At another extreme are almost unclassifiable pieces, part satire, part allegory, part science fiction but all fantastical. ‘In the Park’ concerns the afterlife of famous characters from fiction in limbo: some are entirely made-up, others are various versions of real-life individuals (for example there the several Cleopatras, by Shakespeare, Pushkin, Shaw and Gautier, who reportedly “can’t stand one another”). One Antonio Casella is a newcomer to the Park; it turns out [1] that in an attempt to enter it he has written his own biography, “building himself as a compelling, fascinating, worth remembering character”. Though he successfully stays in the Park he nevertheless finds that after three years he is — literally — fading into obscurity.

Many of Levi’s tales involve technology that doesn’t necessarily bring benefits to humankind. ‘Knall’ begins by describing an innovation that appears to be a novelty designed to appeal to the masses. It turns out to be an instantly disposable weapon, like drugs freely available if you know where to look, an object of almost religious and certainly ritual adoration, regarded often as benign whereas it is in truth lethal. If we substitute any mass-produced object or product currently accepted by society (often with equanimity) despite its capacity to kill and injure — private transport, tobacco, guns, even sugar for example — we can see the point that Levi is trying to make with his concept of the knall.

Two stories in particular are influenced by his long association with the Italian paint industry. ‘The Magic Paint’ describes the invention of a formula which ensures that whatever is coated with the paint brings good luck; unfortunately it also reflects bad luck so it rebounds, with fatal consequences. This is such a potent parable, the equivalent of letting the genie out of the bottle. The second tale, ‘The Molecule’s Defiance’ is a reminder that, despite our confidence in mastering technology, such as manufacturing paint to a consistent specification, things can still be beyond our control.

His tales, whether told in a light or a darker tone, all have something profound to say about the human condition. The strongest, to my mind, is an extended metaphor Levi creates that speak of the experience he is best known for, his year in Auschwitz. ‘One Night’ describes a train hurtling along a wooded plateau as night falls. Dead leaves litter the track, forcing the train to slow, then finally stop. Out of the woods emerge “a group of cautious little people. They were men and women of short stature, slim, in dark clothes…” They proceed to demolish the train and its engine, piece by piece, until at sunrise nothing remains of the train. This image must surely haunt every reader, much as it may have haunted Levi.

This is a marvellous selection: caustic commentaries on censorship and fascism, humorous tales where our perceptions are played with, and even a melancholy love story. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised, given the serious matters that Levi is usually associated with. The translations by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli (only ‘Censorship in Bitinia’ is by Jenny McPhee) read as smoothly as if they were the originals, while Goldstein’s informative introduction quote’s Levi’s opinion that “a story has as many meanings as there are keys in which it can be read”. A fiction, he insists, must be ambiguous “or else it is a news story”. Thus these are stories to read and re-read, for each reading brings a new interpretation; and, he suggests, “all interpretations are true”.

 *  *  *  *  *

[1] Anna Baldini ‘Primo Levi’s Imaginary Encounters: Lavoro Creativo and Nel Parco’ https://www.academia.edu/ Accessed 17.10.15

* In my Reading Challenge this ranks as a book set in a foreign country (mostly Italy, though we do occasionally venture further abroad)

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5 thoughts on “Many meanings

  1. I love the concept of “not in every place and not in every era is humanity destined to advance”, if only because it seems so apt for my sense of current affairs. Dismally apt.

    Thanks for this review, Calmgrove. I’ll keep an eye open for this collection. Levi’s been on my list of unread-but-must-read authors, and these stories may be the place to begin.

  2. I’ve always felt I ought to read Levi but felt rather dismayed at reading about man’s inhumanity to man (and woman, of course). These stories seemed to be a good way to ease myself in; and there are a couple of other short story collections of his too which now seem more inviting!

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