Friday, June 1, 2007

Primo Levi's "A Tranquil Star"

This is my review posted today to Amazon US. (Images: the grey mugshot cover's British, the other one the American, which looks cheerier!) The book marks the twentieth anniversary of his death. He is one of the people, along with Thomas Merton, JRR Tolkien, and Dennis Potter, about whom I have read (or, with Potter and Levi, seen on documentaries) that I have a particular identification with...Potter and Levi even more than Merton-- who's a bit more cocksure and extroverted and privileged, I suppose!-- to my own surprise. I do envy Tolkien his Oxford tenure, although now I know why Merton left Cambridge after a cryptically terrible year. But that'll wait until my forthcoming reflections on his journals excerpted in "The Intimate Merton," my current bedside book.

This is between a three and a four star effort compared to the best of Levi already published, but it remains for those of us limited to English-language versions for Levi's work a welcome arrival on the small shelf of his writing over nearly forty years. These stories appear in English for the first time, commemorating the twentieth anniversary of his death.

This thin anthology gathers seventeen short tales—not all of them are full-fledged stories. They range from a park full of figures from literature who survive there as long as they are remembered (a conceit that has another twist in Kevin Brockmeier’s recent novel “A Brief History of the Dead,” also reviewed by me on Amazon) to a deadly little weapon called a “knall” to a gladiator fight pitting cars against hammer-throwing humans. Some are more fantastic, recalling Italo Calvino’s fables but with more of an edgy or jaundiced view towards human weakness and unpredictable foibles. These, of the magic paint “tantalum” that works great until the user’s bath time, or a kangaroo in “Buffet Dinner,” or the Kafkaesque “Bureau of Vital Statistics,” remind me of similar reflections collected in the earlier volume “The Mirror Maker.” Tales in “A Tranquil Star” like “The Fugitive,” “The TV Fans,” or “The Molecule’s Defiance” (great title admittedly) fall into this mode. But these, in my opinion, are not as gripping as those closer to reality, or at least allegory!

If you have come to “A Tranquil Star” without having read Levi’s earlier pieces in this mode, the subject matter may seem light and inconsequential compared to the Holocaust narratives for which he is most known in English today. The introduction gives a quick run-through of which stories appeared when; they range over the whole career of Levi, and the anthology does shift in tone and topic accordingly. The earliest entry powerfully dramatizes a partisan’s last minutes of life, and “One Night” hints at wartime allegory, “Fra Diavolo” sounds practically autobiographical out of Fascist 1930s Italy. But even those stories with no Italian or European mid-century setting express the author’s consistent concerns. All of Levi’s prose contrasts fragility vs. dominance, clarity vs. confusion, and detachment vs. annihilation all occur.

In unsparing, yet graceful and calm expression, in this volume I find these topics treated most poignantly in the title story that concludes this book, about an expanding star. As the star bursts, the story suddenly switches, to a Peruvian astronomer’s thoughts as he compares the photographic plates of what seems to be the same supernova. He then wonders what he will tell his family.

The universal and the immediate collide. Here is how the fate of a planet under the star is summed up. “After ten hours, the entire planet was reduced to vapor, along with all the delicate and subtle works that the combined labor of chance and necessity, through innumerable trials and errors, had perhaps created there, and along with all of the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined the sky, and had wondered what was the value of so many little lights, and had found no answer. That was the answer.” (160) This excerpt shows the quality of Levi’s voice at its clearest, and the transparent translation that brings these stories to us marvelously rendered.

Not all the stories are flawless. “The Girl in the Book” seems to fall flat, giving us what happens in real life rather than in fiction as its conclusion, but this does not satisfy after the buildup of the tale. Levi can be a tough entertainer. He prefers to separate himself from his tales, and perhaps his rigor leaves the weaker tales here floundering once they are separated from their teller’s warmth.

They tend overall towards the brief elaboration of a clever image or idea. Like much fiction of this genre, the narrative arc fades. The teller’s voice forces you to listen, to see, to enter into what he describes. This is the same as the Holocaust narratives, and Levi’s skill appears in fiction to be less of a craftsman of the ornate prose style, the intricate plot, or the in-depth characterization than many other modern writers. Instead, he illuminates a train forced to halt one night and then backs away after he tells you in an eerily objective voice how it and the tracks around it were completely and silently dismantled. Parts of the rambling but engaging “Bear Meat” are the liveliest pages here. He sets up a mountaineering story (and like the “element” in “The Periodic Table,” I wish Levi had written more about the peaks he loved to once climb) with appealing citations from Dante in “Bear Meat” but halfway through a second narrator interjects another anecdote, and then the story stops, the two halves settling but not joined neatly.

The kangaroo’s dinner attendance is recounted, but after predictable mayhem, the beast jumps away into the evening and that’s that. “Censorship in Bitinia” ends up exactly where you expect—it’s clever, but not profound. “The Magic Paint” switches from the discussion of “tantalum” into Fessio’s fate after his glasses are coated with another substance, and the narrator then halts. This jarring assembly may be intentional on Levi’s part. It does mimic our own patterns of relating stories to each other in fragments and elisions and jerks and starts and stops.

But, for those seeking elegant fables and erudite wit, these fictions (what seem to be the last ones untranslated by now, so this may account for their uneven quality as stand-alone pieces) may reveal to you a handful, among the seventeen, that will prove as memorable as to me the title story. My other finalists are “The Sorcerers” with its predicament of two smart academics unable to convey the how-tos of all the technological wonders of the First World to a tribe in remote Bolivia’s rainforest, and “One Night” with its disturbing abandoned train imagery. These leave me admiring again Levi’s talent.

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