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 justice. It’s up to him and his employers to judge what he has done. He would more readily sympathize with the action Captain MacWhirr takes when the battered Nan-Shan reaches port: the Captain distributes their scattered silver dollars to his cargo of Chinese coolies in equal shares. A brisk and pragmatic solution, though not an instance of perfect justice.
In manner, Levi takes after Marlow, Conrad’s sardonic reporter of other men’s adventures. He warns us at the outset that Faussone isn’t much of a storyteller; the man seems afraid of exaggerating, and yet at times he exaggerates; his vocabulary is limited; not only does he rely on clichés but he considers them original. Of course Faussone is only a mechanic, however expert in his field, and it is Levi who is the stylist. But a quiet irony is at work here, for Levi’s respect for Faussone is evident and genuine: the man is a fellow worker, a fellow lover of work, and if he talks to Levi as if to a simpleton, then the reader at any rate is likely to be a simpleton in technical matters, and must be made to see how jobs are properly done and how they can still go wrong—and how boring it would be if they always went right.
“For me, every job I undertake is like a first love.” Faussone has traveled to many countries and with good cheer, for “If you ask me, the world is beautiful because it’s all different.” Alaska, however, failed to live up to the picture of it he had derived from Jack London’s books. He had to assemble a huge sixlegged derrick, take it eighty miles out to sea, and set it on the seabed, notwithstanding wind, waves, and seasickness. “As a rule I want to do my work with a bit of class,” but there was little class on show that day.
Before he went to India all he knew about the country was that they killed Gandhi “because he was too good,” that there were too many babies and people starved because their religion forbade them to eat cows, and that it was the home of “Mowgli the Frog” and “the Kamasutra business,” the hundred and thirty-seven ways of making love, or was it two hundred and thirty-seven? “I don’t remember exactly any more, I read it once in a magazine while I was waiting to get my hair cut.” His job was to rig a suspension bridge, and he has strong feelings about bridges, because they connect things and are “sort of the opposite of boundaries, and boundaries are where wars start.” The hordes of children came in useful, since to throw a catwalk across the river you didn’t need to bother with a harpoon, you just offered ten rupees for the first kid who flew a kite to the other side, then you attached a rope to the kite string and so on until you got to the steel cables.
It was no reflection on Faussone’s skill when a wind started the bridge vibrating and most of it collapsed. But it upset him, like being dropped by a girl and not knowing why. In Italy once, when a distilling tower (“Distilling is beautiful,” Levi declared in The Periodic Table) began to shake and gurgle in its guts, that wasn’t his fault either; yet he felt he had “a kind of sick child on my hands,” and he managed to cure it. At considerable risk to himself, but it’s in work that you find yourself. And he suffered when he was rigging a giant crane in Russia, and something went wrong with the bevel gear. It was “like a pregnant woman whose baby comes out crippled or retarded,” he tells Levi. “I don’t know if you follow me.”
A chemist, Levi explains, is a rigger of very tiny constructions; and he allows himself a story from his own days as a chemist, an engrossing piece of detective work. A large consignment of enamel dispatched to Russia for coating tin cans had proved faulty on testing, unable to stand up to the anchovies which the cans were to hold. Why this should be so eluded him. At last the answer came, in the form of a vision during a night of sleeplessness. (The saying “Night brings counsel,” he observes, is true only as long as you can’t sleep.) The samples had been rendered vulnerable in the course of testing, by filaments from the gauze used to clean the viscometer. Chemistry leads to the heart of matter, Levi wrote in The Periodic Table, and “Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy.”
“It was possible that, having spent more than thirty years sewing together long molecules presumably useful to my neighbor and performing the parallel task of convincing my neighbor that my molecules really were useful to him, I might have learned something about sewing together words and ideas, or about the general and specific properties of my colleague, man.” Entirely congruous here is the argument over writing as a job of work which forms a chapter entitled “Tiresias.” (We probably wouldn’t think of Primo Levi as “throbbing between two lives” in the manner of Eliot’s Theban soothsayer, although he could in a sense be said to “have foresuffered all.”) The more elaborate philosophizing is conducted by the narrator, but we may assume that Faussone agrees with him that both of the opposing rhetorics are wrong: the cynical exaltation of labor which is generally a substitute for a pay rise, and the foolish denigration of labor as constituting an insult to human dignity. And also that, all rhetoric aside, loving your work (“unfortunately, the privilege of a few”) is “the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth.”
But when the literary profession comes under debate, and Levi—the Tiresias who has experienced both sorts of work, both modes of pleasure—claims that in writing “the alarm systems are rudimentary” and there is no equivalent of the spirit-level or the T square, Faussone wins the round by retorting that writers don’t fall from great heights and break their necks; at worst, if they use a ballpoint, they may develop a callus. Harmony is restored when they agree that all three jobs, rigging and chemistry and writing, afford the opportunity of testing yourself and of reflecting yourself in your work, and the pleasure of thinking that maybe what you have created will outlive you and be of use to other people.
Though generous in technical detail, the book is by no means composed entirely of nuts and bolts. Humanity is bound to creep in, short of total automation. And besides there are plenty of little bonuses on offer, such as Faussone’s succession of short-lived girlfriends (“I don’t have to tell you about that night, because you can imagine it for yourself”: so much for the widely touted joys of sex!); the visit Levi pays to Faussone’s aunts (“What Tino needs is a nice girl,” is their opinion); and the sedulous ape of the title, who lends a helping hand and nearly brings a derrick down. Levi explains that the term “derrick” comes from Mr. Derrick, a hangman in seventeenth-century London, and so conscientious a professional—in this like the two of them—that he invented a new form of gallows, the original derrick. Faussone isn’t impressed: “I always thought they hanged people any old way.” And he confides that his first name, Tino, though common enough, is short in his case for Libertino. His father had wanted to call him Libero, but the authorities didn’t like the sound of it, and he settled for Libertino, not realizing what the word meant: so “anybody who happens to glance at my passport or my driver’s license has a good laugh at my expense.”
All the same, this cheerful and cheering book does raise gloomy thoughts. What stories will the ever-increasing unemployed have to tell? What sort of life is theirs to lead, let alone chat about? Will they fill their empty hours by reading books like The Monkey’s Wrench? No, that’s what we have round-the-clock television for.
Aharon Appelfeld’s gift is certainly not for cheering; he is a master of unease, and so far a very specific kind of unease. We appreciate why he chooses to write about the prelude to the Holocaust rather than the Holocaust itself. “Our language,” Levi has said, “lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.”* Appelfeld’s key year is 1938; the Holocaust isn’t there, but it will be present in the mind of the reader. In his previous novel, The Retreat, the time was 1938 and the place a so-called “Institute of Advanced Studies” in the Austrian mountains, a place where Jews went for the eradication of telltale racial defects, including mockery and melancholy, and to be turned into a healthy breed. The educative process failed, the residents reverted from gentile billiards to Jewish poker, and to melancholy and mockery. And a new stoicism grew, along with a feeling of community, as hostility to them built up in the flatland below. One of them sums up: “We were born Jews and it seems we shall die Jews.”
To the Land of the Cattails tells of a journey eastward from Austria through Ruthenia to Bukovina, by horse-drawn wagon in the autumn of 1938, made by beautiful thirty-four-year-old Toni and her tall and handsome young son. Toni had eloped at seventeen, and followed her husband to Vienna, where he soon revealed himself a gentile through and through: that’s to say, he beat her. The marriage lasted three years, and since then Toni has had a number of unsatisfactory affairs. Her last admirer, an elderly man, left her his estate, and she has determined to return to her parental home.
Hardly intended for such an allegorical odyssey, poor Toni, spoiled and muddle-headed, is forever yearning for a cup of coffee, while Rudi apparently prefers the horses to his mother. (What lies deeper in their hearts is another matter.) Early on they meet the landlady of a village tavern who used to work for Jews in the city, “decent people, honest,” and regrets having left them. “I like Jews. I need them as I need air to breathe.” Toni falls sick with typhus and is tended by a solicitous and pious Jewish doctor who has converted to the Russian Orthodox Church because it was Dostoevsky’s religion. They arrive at an inn where the landlady has recently been murdered for the incomprehensible reason that she was a Jewess, and the police have declined to investigate the crime. The peaceful countryside so blissfully anticipated by Toni—“Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?“—isn’t peaceful any more. Rudi punches a man who has insulted his mother; “I’m proud of you,” she says. “Jews are usually cowards.” They come across the ruins of a Jewish dwelling, with books scattered on the ground. “Jews studied everything,” Toni remarks, using the past tense.
The errant daughter forsaking the city to be reunited with her honest old parents—such was her initial vision of events—is turning as if under an evil spell into what we, at least, recognize as a bewildered fugitive. Certainly she is becoming more and more Jewish, whereas Rudi, drinking heavily and even fornicating with a Ruthenian servant-girl, seems to be growing more gentile: “I hate the Jews. They are merchants and thieves.” At times she can see his father’s features in him.
As they near the end of their journey, Toni goes ahead to her parents’ home, in a village called Dratscincz. When Rudi follows he can find no trace of Toni or her parents; it seems that the Jews have been inexplicably deported. He stumbles on a frightened girl, perhaps no more than thirteen years old but ancient in the experience of her race, who nurses him through a bout of fever. They join a group of people who couldn’t get on the previous, overcrowded train and are waiting patiently for the next one. The final tableau is akin to that of The Retreat. There is no talk of political forces, no “benefit of hindsight” in evidence, only growing intimations of an undiagnosed, spreading disease. To put it crudely, Rudi’s crash course in how to be a Jew is approaching its climax.
Sitting on their bundles at the rural railway station, they make cups of coffee, smoke cigarettes, slap their children, take umbrage, soothe injured feelings, reminisce about the old days, and are by fits and starts optimistic and fearful. An old man says, “We are Jews and will remain Jews.” They hear “a festive whistle,” and in steams an ancient locomotive pulling two old railroad cars, moving from little station to station, gathering up the remnants. And there the novel ends—or, one should say, there the printed pages end.
It has been suggested that in his books Appelfeld is uncovering the flaws of European Jews, the weaknesses that have stemmed from their compromises with a gentile world. It seems to me that his Jews are much like other people—variously foolish, shrewd, kind, self-seeking, honest, affected, apprehensive, unsubdued—except that in addition to all else they are Jewish, whether they want to be or not. Rudi was only half-Jewish, but that was sufficient. No more than his mother did he possess any skill that would keep him alive.
January 15, 1987