Bridges & Boundaries

The Monkey's Wrench

by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver
Summit Books, 171 pp., $15.95

The narrator of The Monkey’s Wrench reflects that, while the word “freedom” has only too many meanings, perhaps the most accessible form of freedom, the most enjoyable and the most useful to society, “consists of being good at your job and therefore taking pleasure in doing it.” He will of course be aware that the welcoming words over the gate to Auschwitz were Arbeit macht Frei; but then, Arbeit too has many meanings. When he speaks of his own profession, that of chemist, he describes it as what he studied in school and what “has kept me alive so far.” What kept Primo Levi alive in Auschwitz was his knowledge of chemistry: for two crucial months he was transferred to the nearby IG Farben laboratory. “That surprises you, eh?” his fictitious raconteur, Faussone, observes in relating how his father worked on the German railways after the fall of Mussolini: “But having a skill always comes in handy.”

In a note at the end of the book Primo Levi quotes Joseph Conrad’s account of the origins of the stolid, unaware hero of Typhoon, Captain MacWhirr. Conrad had never seen the captain, but the captain is the product of twenty years of life, Conrad’s life; and though the captain never existed, he is “perfectly authentic.” Levi says that, in like manner, Faussone, who tells most of the stories in the book to him, is imaginary but perfectly authentic; and, we might add, a product, if less directly, of his life. Conrad and Levi are writers who have seen more of life beyond the study than is the case with most writers.

Both MacWhirr and Faussone are devoted to their work, their duty, and to a degree even more rarely seen in modern literature than in modern life. MacWhirr takes his ship straight through a typhoon, because the typhoon is there, in the spirit of the Goethean dictum: “The safe plan is, always simply to do the task that lies nearest us.” And his feeling for his work, his love even of it, takes Faussone, an itinerant rigger of derricks and bridge cables, to the top of pylons when imagination, that double-edged gift, would have held him back. His being is concentrated on the task in front of him, just as MacWhirr’s is focused on the barometer: fact drives out fears and fancies. Both are practical, literal-minded men, in whom considerations of bravery never arise since they are merely doing a job they have chosen to do.

In some respects Faussone is a nineteenth-century figure, distantly related to the ship’s engineer in Kipling’s poem, “McAndrew’s Hymn,” of 1893.

From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God—
Predestination in the stride o’ yon connectin’-rod.

But I ha’ lived an’ I ha’ worked. Be thanks to Thee, Most High!
Am’ I ha’ done what I ha’ done—Judge Thou if ill or well….

Faussone, though, has never heard of Calvin and wastes no time on notions of divine…

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