"A Tranquil Star" | Posthumous stories from Primo Levi
Fantastical scenarios are dreamed up by Italian author Primo Levi (1919-87) in "A Tranquil Star,"...
Seattle Times book critic
"A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories"
by Primo Levi,
translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Norton, 163 pp., $21.95
A paint that wards off bad luck, a kangaroo who feels uncomfortable at a formal dinner party, a perfect poem that all but grows wings while trying to escape its creator ...
These are a few of the fantastical scenarios dreamed up by Italian author Primo Levi (1919-87) in "A Tranquil Star," a posthumous collection of stories that covers the full span of his writing career. It's a bit of a grab bag — but what a grab bag!
The settings hop from South American jungle to outer space to an Italian beach resort. The tone varies from whimsical to biting to eerie. And Levi's vision can expand to encompass the whole universe, before returning us to a scene of ordinary domesticity involving a workaday astronomer whose proposed family weekend plans are derailed by an uncooperative supernova.
At least that's what happens in the book's wonderful title story.
A little background: Levi, a chemist and an Italian Jew, was a partisan fighter against the Nazis in northern Italy when he was captured and sent to Auschwitz in late 1943. That experience was the subject of his first book, "If This Be a Man" (later retitled "Survival in Auschwitz"), which offered a straightforward eyewitness account of what he and his fellow captives endured there.
But another kind of writer in Levi was waiting to get out, and it surfaced in his later memoirs, essays and fiction. This was Levi-the-fabulist, who liked to impose meticulous patterns on unruly spectrums of experience. He drew significantly on his career as manager of a Turin chemical plant in his writing, and his acknowledged masterpiece is "The Periodic Table," in which 21 of the elements — hydrogen, tin, uranium, etc. — become springboards for memory and reflection.
In "A Tranquil Star," Levi's wartime experience is briefly caught in "The Death of Marinese," and his love of northern Italy's mountain landscape is evident in the adventures chronicled in "Bear Meat" (clearly an early run-through for an episode recounted in "The Periodic Table"). But the book hits its stride, tapping fully into the rich peculiarities of Levi's imagination, in "Knall," a lightly macabre story about a fad on par with the yo-yo or hula-hoop — only in this case the craze revolves around "a small, smooth cylinder, as long and thick as a Tuscan cigar, and not much heavier."
The most unusual thing about this device?
"Nothing is known about the mechanism by which the knall kills."
There ensues a level-headed explanation of how the knall's peculiar properties have changed patterns of social behavior, followed by an analysis of why this fad is unlikely to last. You can almost picture the narrator standing at the head of a corporate conference room, giving this arrant nonsense a veneer of sober sense.
A similar blend of business-speak and wild fantasy informs "The Magic Paint," in which a paint manufacturer discusses the "varied demands" he faces for "paints that do not conduct electricity and paints that do, paints that transmit heat or reflect it, that keep mollusks from adhering to hulls, that absorb sound, or that can be removed from a surface like a peel from a banana."
Reasonable enough — and it's precisely this rational tone that makes the story, about a paint that provides "protection from misfortune," all the more delightful.
Other items in the grab-bag: a seemingly autobiographical fragment on Levi's military career, a tale about an otherworldly bureaucrat tired of meting out early deaths to undeserving victims, a hilarious sketch about life on a distant planet whose female inhabitants contact the host of their favorite Italian TV show.
The translations by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli (with one story translated by Jenny McPhee) all read smoothly, capturing Levi's spry leaps of thought and turns of phrase. The book's contents are drawn from several Italian sources, and in the acknowledgments Goldstein and Bastagli reveal that a more organized collected works by Levi is being readied for English publication. He certainly deserves it.
Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@
seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.