What If?

Primo Levi
Primo Levi; drawing by David Levine

“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,…

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