Primo Levi’s Alchemy

Don’t read the Holocaust into everything he wrote.

It is a curse of those who write about the Holocaust that they are eternally identified with their horrific, unapproachable subject, even when they try to take their lives in other directions. Elie Wiesel has written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, but he will always be thought of first as the author of Night. Twenty years after its publication, Paul Celan’s audiences were still pestering him to recite “Deathfugue,” his canonical poem about the camps (“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at evening …”).

Primo Levi, whose memoir Survival in Auschwitz (its American title)has become one of the defining testimonies of the Holocaust, has suffered a similar injustice. Returning from the camp in 1946 at age 25, Levi went on to have a successful career as an industrial chemist while simultaneously rising to prominence as one of postwar Italy’s most beloved writers. His memoir, first published in 1947, initially sank into obscurity, but his essays and short stories ran in some of the country’s best-known periodicals, and his fiction won numerous literary prizes. Yet in the English-speaking world, he has been defined solely through his works about the Holocaust, which also include The Periodic Table (1984), his autobiography through chemistry, and The Drowned and the Saved (published posthumously in 1988), his final and most brutal meditation on evil.

It is tempting to greet A Tranquil Star—a selection of 17 of Levi’s short stories appearing in English for the first time—as a source to be mined for additional clues about his experience at Auschwitz and its effects on his life afterward. But this impulse is misguided—not least because the stories in this book, the first significant work of Levi’s to be published in America in nearly two decades, offer very little in the way of such clues. In fact, if their author were not Primo Levi, nothing would connect them with the Holocaust at all. These stories, which span Levi’s career—the first was originally published in 1949, the last in 1986, just a few months before his death by suicide 20 years ago this week—reveal a lighter side of Levi, a man who smiled at the memory of his mountaineering exploits and sighed at the grindings of bureaucracy. But they also reveal a scientist who was unafraid to let his profound physical understanding of the universe and all its components shade into the metaphysical. Above all, the stories are the work of a writer intent on calling attention to the discrepancies between the world as it appears on paper and as people actually experience it—a writer who tried to make each of his stories “a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and the human race.”

If I had read the bulk of A Tranquil Star without knowing who the author was, I would have guessed Borges. The stories are amazingly diverse in form, ranging from a memoiristic account of a mountain-climbing expedition to an open letter written by aliens and addressed to an Italian TV star. But the majority are metaphysical parables, by turns haunting and humorous, written in Levi’s signature dry, plain-spoken tone. These “fables” take an extraordinary situation—a kangaroo at an dinner party, a country where literary censorship is carried out by chickens—and recount it in utterly matter-of-fact terms, with an attention to physical detail that hints at Levi’s scientific background and a diffident irony that understates the gravity of his subject matter. “Bureau of Vital Statistics” depicts the working life of Arrigo, whose job is to dream up causes of death for people around the world. Not unlike a fiction writer, he enjoys building entire characters out of the spare names and identifying characteristics he finds on his desk each morning:

The first index card of the day … bore the name of Yen Ch’ing Hsu, fifty-eight years old, single, born in Han Tou, where he still resided, dockworker, no illnesses to speak of. … Yen still had thirty-six days to live and Arrigo imagined him against the backdrop of an exotic sunset, sitting on a roll of cable before a turbid sea the color of a ripe banana; he was exhausted by his daily work, sad and alone. A man like this doesn’t fear death and doesn’t seek it, either, but he may act carelessly. Arrigo thought about it for a moment and then had him fall from a scaffold: he wouldn’t suffer much.

Normally Arrigo has no trouble coming up with appropriate demises for his subjects (“everyone knows what happens to a man who races motorbikes”), but suddenly, faced with the card of an 8-year-old girl, he has a breakdown. The story’s conclusion finds him reassigned to lighter work in “a small office in the attic of the building, in charge of determining the shape of the noses of newborns.”

In an interview with Philip Roth, Levi asserted that “there is no incompatibility between being a chemist and being a writer: in fact, there is a mutual reinforcement.” Throughout his life, he wrote stories that he referred to as “science fiction,” which he meant quite literally—fiction about science. The most evocative stories in this collection read like laboratory reports from an alternate universe. “The Magic Paint” plays on Levi’s experience in the paint factory where he spent his career. A man challenges the company to copy, from a sample, a paint that purports to protect its user from bad luck. Analyzing it, the narrator discovers that it contains the element tantalum, “a very respectable metal, with a name full of meaning, never before seen in paint, and thus surely responsible for the property that we were looking for.” (In fact, tantalum is known for being highly resistant to corrosion and heat, and so the plot of the story turns on this scientific joke: What if tantalum were so resistant that it could even resist misfortune?) The new version works: A colleague who tries it out finds that “all the traffic lights he came to were green, he never got a busy signal on the telephone, his girlfriend made up with him, and he even won a modest prize in the lottery.” But then the narrator remembers an old schoolmate, cursed with bad luck, whom he invites to try the paint. When they examine him in the lab, they discover that he has, literally, the evil eye: His gaze is capable of corroding steel. So, they coat his glasses with the paint, but when he puts them on, he drops dead, his eye having “instantaneously reflected that thing which he could no longer transmit.”

A story like this one would be unforgettable no matter who the author was—Borges, Primo Levi, your next-door neighbor. Yet the fact that these stories are by Levi—and that, it seems safe to assume, no one reading them will be unaware of the author’s own story—makes it almost impossible to resist reading A Tranquil Star in precisely the way I previously dismissed as misguided. Despite my best intentions, when reading about the paint that wards off evil, or a rogue molecule whose defiance symbolizes “the prevalence of confusion over order, and of unseemly death over life,” or—in another extraordinary parable—of the “knall,” a weapon that causes instant, bloodless death but “has not, so far, become a danger to society,” I was unable to stop thinking about Levi’s experiences during the Holocaust and what they might mean for these fables about evil. Is “The Fugitive”—the tale of a writer whose poem literally grows legs and runs away from him—a parable of the elusiveness of the muse? Or is it a cry of despair at the lack of control a writer has over his words once they are committed to paper and out in the world? (Levi said that after returning from Auschwitz, he had an insurmountable urge to tell his story to anyone who would listen, but he was deeply wounded when his books were attacked or misunderstood.) Could “Buffet Dinner,” which describes (in marvelously allusive terms) the discomfort of a kangaroo at an elegant party, actually be an allegory of the survivor’s futile attempts to integrate himself into a society where he will be forever ill at ease?

Maybe so. But if these readings are psychologically plausible, in a literary context they are ridiculous. Not every piece of writing can be expected to bear the weight of the Holocaust, and to load these stories down with such an impossible freight risks damaging their delicate humor and intelligence. Levi offers a hint at his intentions in another piece in this collection. Titled “In the Park,” it depicts a theme park of literary characters, including “five or six Cleopatras … they can’t stand each other,” and Dante’s beloved Beatrice, who is, as she would have to be, “unbearable.” Needless to say, this world is so impractical as to be nightmarish: The doctors are all either antiquated or corrupt, and there are no plumbers, electricians, or mechanics. Instead, there is a surfeit of explorers, cops and robbers, musicians, poets, and prostitutes. “In short, it’s better not to seek here an image of the world you left,” the narrator is told. “I mean, a faithful image: because you’ll find one, yes, but multicolored, dyed, and distorted.” Even this literary joke has a real worry at its heart: that literature, even at its best, is a deeply flawed representation of the world. Yet it also offers a consolation. Fiction, understood on its own terms, has its own pleasures. Why demand from it more than it wants to give?