The Monkey's Wrench

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873

In The Monkey’s Wrench, a series of discursive anecdotes are recounted to an unnamed narrator by Libertino Faussone, a steel rigger whose work takes him all over the world. The stories are about work—the problems, the disasters, the exhilaration when everything finally comes out right. In the final chapters, the narrator, a paint chemist who is also a professional writer, tells his own work story to Faussone.

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When the book opens, the narrator explains that he has recently arrived at a factory in a remote area of the Soviet Union and has met Faussone, the only other Italian on the site, in the dining room for foreign visitors. Over a huge plate of roast beef, Faussone recalls a visit to an African port to erect a dockside crane. When the task was completed he expected everyone to celebrate with him, but the workers were in an angry mood. They had been campaigning for the canteen to serve food conforming to their religion, but the boss, who was of another religion, had adamantly refused. At a mass meeting, they put a curse on the boss by ceremonially mutilating his photograph. He became ill and died. His wealthy family took the workers to court, accusing them of “homicide with malice aforethought.” The narrator asks how the trial ended. “You’re kidding,” says Faussone, “it’s still going on....”

Faussone’s second story, set in Italy, gives the first of his many vivid and absorbing descriptions of the technological processes of construction—in this case, the building of a distillation plant. Soon after this immensely complex undertaking was completed, the installation became “sick.” It heaved and groaned like a man in the grip of illness. A design fault was identified and Faussone had to modify the structure by slowly working his way upward for two days inside a vertical pipe. He was overcome by claustrophobia but forced himself to continue. The modification was successful, but he now calls himself a “concave” rigger and leaves the “convex” jobs to others.

Over tea and vodka in his room, Faussone talks about one of the best friends he has ever had—a monkey, which arrived while he was erecting a derrick in a forest clearing and learned to do modest tasks. In its over-enthusiasm for button-pressing, however, it almost destroyed the derrick.

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On a Sunday walk in a forest, Faussone tells his companion about the only woman whom he has ever considered marrying—a tall, strapping forklift driver who could corner “better than Nikki Lauda.” Fausonne recalls their lovemaking with uncharacteristic tenderness and confesses that he still yearns for her.

One evening Faussone is unexpectedly befuddled by wine. In a key dialogue, the rigger and the writer discuss the advantages and disadvantages of constructing with metals and constructing with words.

Faussone’s Alaska story is interspersed with recollections of shrimp for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His task was to finish the assembly of a mammoth derrick, load it onto pontoons, and install it some way out to sea. In another of his breathtaking descriptive passages, Fausonne recalls how, perched on the derrick arm, high above the turbulent ocean, he became seasick. Ashamed at this loss of personal style, he nevertheless gamely finished the job.

On a hot September Sunday, the two men take a boat trip on the Volga. Faussone launches into a description of the building of a bridge in Calabria. His India story is also about a bridge: the construction of a suspension bridge across a river. When the piers had been erected, ready for the final span, the river suddenly veered to the left, breaching the embankment, rooting up trees, flooding adjacent fields, and damaging part of the installation. There was nothing Faussone could do except wait until the torrent subsided. Faussone’s enthusiastic description of the drawing of the suspension cables, an extraordinarily complicated and demanding task, is one of the most fascinating passages in the book.

In a confidential mood, Faussone talks about his aunts in Turin. They fuss over him and try to make matches for him. He reminisces, too, about his early working life, when he was a welder.

On a snowy winter’s day, Faussone describes the rigging of a crane in icy conditions in the Soviet Union. On inspection day everything went like clockwork until the inspector tested the rotation. The gigantic steel arm creaked and shuddered. The inspector declared the machine “kaput,” but Faussone discovered that the bevel gear had been sabotaged, probably by someone from a rival French firm. There was a lawsuit. Years passed; the matter is still before the courts, and Faussone is pessimistic about the outcome. “I know what happens,” he says, “when things of iron becomes things of paper.”

In his own story, the narrator explains that he is in the Soviet Union to investigate a complaint that a specialized enamel, supplied by his firm for coating the inside of food tins, becomes lumpy when used for anchovies. Through an ingenious process of deduction, he has discovered that the lumps have been caused by tiny fragments of fiber from the rags used by a Russian official with a mania for cleanliness. The paint contract is saved, and he can return to Italy.

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