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What If?

Playful” is probably the last adjective one would think to use for the oeuvre of the Primo Levi who wrote Survival in Auschwitz, describing the ordeal he lived through but never left behind. And yet, on reading the latest collection of his stories to be translated into English, A Tranquil Star, on the anniversary of his death twenty years ago, one cannot avoid the impression of playfulness in these small stories written between 1949 and 1986, each of which seems to be an offspring of the question “What if…?”

What if a kangaroo were to go to a dinner party? What if the weekend’s entertainment were a gladiatorial battle between men and automobiles? What if there were a magic paint that brought good fortune to anyone covered with it? What if all the characters invented by novelists were to live in a theme park together?

Primo Levi was a writer who was also a scientist—specifically an industrial chemist—and both professions required him to constantly ask and explore the question “What if…?” At his desk as in his laboratory, he devised answers to the teasing question and came up with extraordinary inventions—eccentric, imaginative, and never what one would expect. They were rooted in the known world, certainly, the answers had to be realistic to satisfy him, but they took on—quite rapidly in these small tales we have here—the aspect of dreams, and dreams that threatened always to bloom dangerously into nightmares.

It is not at all surprising that Levi translated Kafka (The Trial). Even if Kafka died, fortuitously, before the Holocaust, its shadow imbues the work of both. If one saw it looming in the future, the other looked back to see how it suffused the past. What is curious is that Levi said, in an essay on his translation in the collection The Mirror Maker, “I don’t think I have much affinity for Kafka,” and went on to explain the difference he perceived between them:

In my writing, for good or evil, knowingly or not, I’ve always strived to pass from the darkness into the light, as…a filtering pump might do, which sucks up turbid water and expels it decanted: possibly sterile. Kafka forges his path in the opposite direction: he endlessly unravels the hallucinations that he draws from incredibly profound layers, and he never filters them. The reader feels them swarm with germs and spores: they are gravid with burning significances, but he never receives any help in tearing through the veil or circumventing it to go and see what it conceals. Kafka never touches ground, he never condescends to giving you the end of Ariadne’s thread.

Now it is true that one could never think of Kafkas’s stories as “playful” and it is also true that, as Levi puts it, “perhaps Kafka laughed when he told stories to his friends, sitting at a table in a beer hall, because one isn’t always equal to oneself, but he certainly didn’t laugh when he wrote,” while it is possible that Levi did. But did Levi—do Levi’s stories—give the reader the end of Ariadne’s thread?

Reading the stories collected in A Tranquil Star, you may smile, occasionally laugh, feel intrigued, amused, possibly entertained—but again and again there is that disquieting moment when you see that what you laughed at, what amused you, should not have, that there was something dark at the heart of it, something bitter, evil, and obscene. From Levi’s comments on Kafka, one presumes he did not do this deliberately or even consciously; it was something he was no more capable of avoiding than Kafka was of leaving Joseph K. alive at the end of The Trial or restoring Gregor Samsa to his humanity at the end of The Metamorphosis.

Only the first two stories in the collection keep to solid ground, the real world, without veering into fantasy, and they are his earliest. “The Death of Marinese,” published in 1949, was derived from his own experience as a partisan in 1943 when he was captured by the Germans and was being transported in a truck and noticed that one of the soldiers had a grenade hanging from his belt. “I could easily have lifted the safety pin, pulled the cord, and done away with myself and several of them, but I didn’t have the courage” is how he described the incident in the chapter “Gold” of The Periodic Table, published much later, in 1975. In the earlier, fictionalized version, his character Marinese performs the act Levi did not. “The explosion ripped apart the bodies of four Germans, and his own.” But it is not Levi’s way to end the story dramatically—perhaps he would have thought it melodramatic to do so; instead the last line sounds the anticlimactic note much more typical of him: “The truck was abandoned, and we captured it the following night.”

Bear Meat” is also realistic and anticlimactic in tone (and a version of it also reappeared in The Periodic Table, in the chapter “Iron”). It celebrates the joys of mountaineering but what Levi celebrates is not only “the taste of feeling young in the mountains, of being your own master, which means master of the world,” but also being “free to make mistakes”—which the young mountaineers do and find themselves stranded in the dark on a mountaintop, having to suffer a night in the open, on freezing ground—“tasting bear meat” as the slang term has it. Characteristically, it is this “bear meat,” the hardship involved, that the narrator celebrates because it is this that makes him feel, in a paradoxical fashion, his own master in the fullest sense.

In these two stories Levi adhered to realism just as a mountaineer adheres to earth and rock and a chemist to the verifiable certitudes of science. “A piton goes in or it doesn’t; the rope holds or it doesn’t.” But as a mountaineer he knew of the crevasses and chasms the mountains contain, and as a chemist he knew that the metals he handled could conceal secrets and disasters. Even rock, “extinguished since primordial times,” contains “the hidden sprite, the capricious kupfernickel which jumps out now here, now there, elusive and malign, with long perked ears, always ready to flee from the blows of the investigating pickax…,” he wrote in The Periodic Table‘s chapter on nickel.

In fact, Levi was to give up his career in science for that of a full-time writer—“I would choose another road, since I had that option and still felt strong enough: the road of the teller of stories”—and in his stories he could acknowledge fully the mysterious, the elusive, the surreal embedded in the real. Most of those in The Tranquil Star, brief as they are, span the two worlds and indeed break down and even deny that a barrier exists between them. Play, in Levi’s world, is a serious matter. So if many of these start amusingly enough, they very soon acquire shadows, veer off in strange directions, behave in capricious ways. They are kobolds, sprites of the narrative art.

In one of the earlier stories, “In the Park” (1971), a fictional character, Antonio, is met by his author James—we discover their identities as we go along—and taken to a kind of Disneyland for fictional characters: no less than “six Cleopatras: Pushkin’s, Shaw’s, Gautier’s, and so on. They can’t stand one another,” the Good Soldier Schweik, “Mistah Kurtz,” Beatrice, Alyosha, Leopold Bloom, Kim, Moll Flanders, Holden Caulfield, Pickwick, the Ancient Mariner, and also a number of heroes and heroines of lesser- known Italian literature (the translator Ann Goldstein provides helpful footnotes). To Antonio the most horrifying is one that doesn’t have a face and is not identifiable: “under his beret only a convex, spongy pink surface was visible,” but James says, “Don’t pay any attention to him…. There are lots of them like that here, but they don’t last long. They are unsuccessful characters…. They disappear in the space of a few months.” Together they inhabit a park that has humble huts as well as marble palaces, villas, ruins, skyscrapers, the garden of the Finzi-Continis, Uncle Tom’s cabin, the house of Usher, and so on. “Sooner or later the Michelin Guide to the Park will come out, and you’ll see, this will have three stars,” James says confidently. Antonio moves in with Horace, they adjust to each other quite nicely, but after three years Antonio notices himself fading, growing transparent, and gradually disappearing:

Antonio understood that his time had come: the memory of him was extinct and his testimony complete. He felt sadness, but neither fear nor anguish. He took leave of James and his new friends, and sat under an oak to wait for his flesh and his spirit to dissolve into light and wind.

In the Park” deals with the ephemerality of thought and imagination, but even when Levi turns to something concrete like paint, there proves to be no permanence. “The Magic Paint,” when applied to a person, makes him immune to evil and misfortune, but “naturally it all came to an end after he took a bath.” In “The Fugitive” we are first shown the conception and birth of an idea in the form of a poem, to Pasquale “a poem lucid and distinct” that he has only to fix to a page like a butterfly, and he does, as he has done only five or six times before in his life (which is otherwise the dull and boring one of an office worker). “It was the most beautiful poem that Pasquale had ever written,” it radiates and throbs, but like some of the creatures in “In the Park,” it proves maddeningly transient and when he rushes to the office next day to reread it, it is gone. After a frantic search, he finds it, inexplicably, in the in-box tray. When he tries to make a copy to keep it safe, first the copier breaks down, then all the copying paper is found to be used up. Again he locks it up, again it vanishes. Sometimes it reappears on the wall, sometimes on the ceiling. It seems to be growing hairs, legs, to be trying to escape. When he pastes it to a piece of wood, it manages to peel itself off in fragments that the poet is left trying to put together again. He attempts to recover the original from his memory and through the years writes down different versions of it “but they were increasingly thin, bloodless, and weak.”

In these stories, although about loss and annihilation, the objects at least hold out the possibility of metamorphosing into others, if not exactly in an act of transmigration of souls, then in an act of transmigration of atoms, a process so beautifully described in “Carbon,” the final essay in The Periodic Table, in which carbon atoms

become colors or perfumes in flowers; of others which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea, in a perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death, in which every devourer is immediately devoured; of others which instead attain a decorous semi-eternity in the yellowed pages of some archival document, or the canvas of a famous painter; or those to which fell the privilege of forming a part of a grain of pollen and left their fossil imprint in the rocks for our curiosity; of others still that descended to become part of the mysterious shape-messengers of the human seed, and participated in the subtle process of division, duplication, and fusion from which each of us is born.

Other stories are not allotted such a gentle, painless afterlife. In them, annihilation is extreme, total, and shocking. In “One Night” the imagery Levi employs is particularly disturbing, recalling as it does the known facts of the trains that carried victims of Nazism to their end. A train “made up of only three boxcars in addition to the engine” passes swiftly over a plateau in the darkness after sunset, the sky obscured by “large gray cumuli that seemed to weigh on the frozen land like deflated balloons. The air was dry and smelled like ice.” Then it enters into a crepuscular wood where it halts and falls silent. A host of “little people” emerges from the woods, gathers around the train, and with the implements they have brought with them—hammers, hacksaws, shears—takes apart and destroys the entire train “as if all order and all structure conflicted with some ideal they shared.” The engine is taken apart, ties lifted and split. “When the sun rose, nothing remained of the train, but the crowd did not disperse”; it falls upon the trees, then upon each other, and finally even began “blindly striking themselves.”

In “Gladiators,” a Friday night’s entertainment is provided by a gladiatorial contest between automobiles and men. Stefania persuades her boyfriend to take her to see it. He is reluctant but agrees that “one shouldn’t set oneself apart, give oneself the airs of an intellectual; and then it was an experience, a curiosity that, once in your life, you needed to satisfy, otherwise you don’t know the world you’re living in.” It turns out to be a mistake: the violence and the damage are sickening; they go home not to eat or make love but part in silence, implicated in the shame and the guilt of the spectacle simply by being spectators.

It is not always overt violence that appalls; it can also be the growth of an aberration, a deformity that one has been powerless to halt, as in “The Molecule’s Defiance,” in which a chemist is set to prepare a batch of synthetic resin, a procedure he has often performed before. For some reason, instead of the molecules forming a chain as they are supposed to, they form “a monster molecule.” Since he has brought it about, however unwittingly, he feels it has risen up, defying his “prudence and foresight,” and that it is “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.”

It is a story that draws on Levi’s own experience as an industrial chemist—during the war he was part of the slave labor force at IG Farben—but there are others in which he gives his imagination free rein, sometimes playful but often painfully satiric. “Censorship in Bitinia,” the earliest of these in the collection (and the only one not translated by Ann Goldstein or Alessandra Bastagli but by Jenny McPhee), can actually pass for being comic in spite of much sharp observation. “For various reasons, toward the end of the last decade there was a lively increase in the ‘need’ for censorship in Bitinia.” So much so that the supply of censors proved inadequate to the demand. Too many of these developed strange “sensory-system troubles…serious psychological anomalies and perversions.” Work pending accumulated to the point of suffocating one manager to death under an avalanche of files. Solutions had to be sought. Mechanization proved outrageously inefficient. There were cases of unacceptable oversight (e.g., the word “brigadier” appeared altered as “brassiere”). Eventually a more inventive recourse was taken: animals proved capable of being trained to perform better.

Curiously, the mammals closest to humans were found to be least useful for the task. Dogs, monkeys, and horses…proved to be poor judges precisely because they were too intelligent and sensitive…. They act far too passionately; they respond in unpredictable ways…; they exhibit strange preferences…; and their own memories are uncontrollable and excessive.

Surprisingly, it is the bird-brained barnyard chickens that prove the most “capable of making rapid and definitive decisions. They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.” Besides, they have the advantage of being “easily procured and costing little.” The story ends with the stamp of approval—a chicken’s foot. Touché, one is tempted to exclaim.

There is no laughter, even of the cruel variety, in “Bureau of Vital Statistics,” in which Levi invents the most bizarre profession for any of his characters: Arrigo has to choose the mode of death for every person for whom he is given an index card. The date is already predicted, only the cause needs to be chosen—illness, accident, and so forth. When Arrigo protests on being asked to provide a cause for an eight-year-old girl child, he is demoted from grade seven to grade six and transferred to a small office in the attic of the building, in charge of determining the shape of the noses of newborns. A story that comes closest to the grim reality in which Levi has been educated in Auschwitz. Typically, he avoids providing any link.

If, in all these stories, Levi presents a portrait, or a panorama, of human nature and the depths to which it is fatally drawn, then in “The Sorcerers,” perhaps the least characteristic and the most conventional, he appears to abandon any confidence, or admiration, or faith in the civilization for which human beings generally pride themselves. It could be read as a Conradian tale if he did not inform us in an afterword that the Siriono people are not an invention of his but had been reported on in Scientific American in 1969, and that their subsistence-level way of life had been described by Allan Holmberg in his monograph “The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia.” They claimed to have once known how to make fire, carve canoes, and make bows to hunt with, but only the third of these arts had survived.

Levi’s characters, Wilkins and Goldbaum, are ethnographers trying with little success to record the Siriono dialect in the forest when their camp burns down and all that is left are “smoking embers and scraps of metal, ashes and unidentifiable charred remains.” Their radio no longer functions, their supplies are gone. Utterly dejected, they want nothing but to leave. Knowing themselves incapable of the twenty-day walk through the forest to the nearest town, they manage with great difficulty and some ingenuity to convey to the Siriono that one of them must go with a message, asking for a boat to be sent up the river to rescue them. In the meanwhile, they throw themselves at the mercy of their hosts, who are not hostile but are poor and cannot be expected to provide for the strangers indefinitely. The Siriono demonstrate how they themselves make pots out of clay, bows out of branches. Naturally these constructions take time:

He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry,” said Goldbaum.

The Siriono are never in a hurry. Hurry is a sickness of ours,” Wilkins answered.

They have other sicknesses, however.”

Of course. But nowhere is it said that a civilization without sickness is possible.”

The two men try to think of something with which they might recover their status, but what could they construct—knives? a camera? a tape recorder? a compass? gunpowder? alcohol? They haven’t the means to make anything, and the Siriono laugh. “He was right to laugh,” Goldbaum admits. “He must have thought that we just wanted to gain time until they come to get us. It’s the number-one trick of all sorcerers and prophets.” The Siriono shut them up in a hut, provide them with food and water, and also wait. Frustrated and impotent, their captives have to admit that

the entire colossal edifice of modern technology was out of their reach…. Not even one of the inventions of which their civilization was proud could be transmitted to the Siriono…. None of the arts that they knew would be judged useful by the Siriono.

But Levi’s story is not about one civilization being superior or, for that matter, inferior to the other: one is impoverished, the other futile. In typical fashion, the story ends anticlimactically: the rescue boat arrives, “the farewell was neither long nor ceremonious,” and they depart. Levi had claimed to go to the end of Ariadne’s thread but it is doubtful if the boat ride down the river does that. The only lesson that he deduces from this journey into the so-called heart of darkness is: “not in every place and not in every era is humanity destined to advance.”

He clearly believed—every story, every character he invented illustrates this—that he, his generation, lived in a time when humanity was not in any other mode but that of either stasis or reversal. A scientist himself, he lacked faith even in science to come to the rescue. This was “the horror, the horror” that he saw.

Whether he thought that writing, his capacity for fantasy and imagination and play, could be an antidote, we do not know. After all, what there was at the end was the fall into the stairwell of the building in Turin where he had been born and where he lived when he returned from Auschwitz. With a life and an experience such as his, how could he survive his “survival”?

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