Divided into early and late works written between 1949 and 1986, the seventeen short stories assembled in Primo Levi’s A Tranquil Star, originally published in Italian magazines and books, are here collected and translated into English for the first time. Though Levi is known primarily for his testamentary works written as witness to the Holocaust and its aftermath, these short stories are not overtly or nominally Holocaust-themed, although shadows and echoes of Auschwitz eerily reverberate throughout them. Most literary critics have appreciated A Tranquil Star’s varied themes and images that inform and are informed by Levi’s stunning, major works. While a few critics have viewed these valedictory stories as tainted by Levi’s probable suicide, most have seen them as praiseworthy reflections of his broad imagination, deep conscience, and brilliant literary talent.
About some of his stories, Levi wrote, “all interpretations are true a story must be ambiguous.” Levi’s multilayered writings, filled with images of good and evil, are “painted” either in chiaroscuro (the juxtaposition or overlapping of light, dark, and shadow) or in darkness alone; both “shadings” are used naturalistically, ironically, or ambiguously and as incisive and insightful commentary on human behavior and experience.
Light and dark exist literally and metaphorically in “The Death of Marinese,” the earliest of the stories and redolent of Levi’s experience as a freedom fighter in 1943 (during which he was sent by the Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp). Marinese and another Italian partisan are captured under a gray sky on a snowy, icy road. Light and dark are in conflict too, for while he contemplates his imminent death by the Germans, Marinese finds himself in virtual darkness, “submerged in a long, narrow tunnel like the light that penetrates closed eyelids.” When he notices a grenade attached to the belt of one of the Nazis, Marinese’s light, “gentle soul” bursts into an upsurge of shame and rage, “dark and primeval,” and he detonates the grenade, killing four Nazis and himself. Clearly, light and dark overlap here, for Marinese does kill the Nazis, but at the cost of his own life.
In “Knall,” the dichotomy between light and dark is not literal but rather a schism between tone and meaning. The narrator’s light, informal tone masks the dark, ugly reality that a knall is a weapon that kills quickly and efficiently, leaving no mess. The narrator casually describes this German-sounding “handy device” as unique, clever, and neat, the perfect tool for quiet, up-close mass murder that “does not spill blood.” It is a tool to activate that need of humans, “acute or chronic, to kill their neighbor or themselves.” The ambiguous tension between the detached tone and very dark topic evokes the shadows of Auschwitz, where Nazis used the insecticide Zyklon B to commit genocide “neatly,” without messy bullets or blood.
“One Night” begins in the gray half-light at dusk and continues until dawn, although daylight reveals a more sinister darkness. With echoes of the chugging deportation trains containing their “cargo” of Jews en route to the death camps, a train stops in a dark forest. From the woods come swarms of men and women who dismantle the train and destroy the rails. This potentially hopeful story ends in shocking darkness, however, for after tearing apart the train and tracks, the people turn on each other and themselves. The story echoes loudly the diabolical way in which the Nazis in the camps forced Jewish Kapos to torture other Jewish prisoners so as to blur the line between the innocent Jews and the nefarious Nazis.
In “The Magic Paint,” an industrial chemist in a paint factory (Levi’s own profession for many years) creates a Teflon-type paint that, when applied to oneself, allows one to experience great fortune, protected from all harm. However, its protective qualities vanish in water. It is almost as if the “magic paint” of the good life experienced by deportees before Auschwitz was cruelly washed away by the obligatory shower that preceded their slow death in the camp.
Metaphoric darkness takes the shape of bleak, absurdist bureaucracy in “Fra Diavolo on the...
(The entire section is 1756 words.)