Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

During World War II, Primo Levi suffered the horrors of Auschwitz, and most of his books written before The Monkey’s Wrench stem directly from this experience. The relationship between people and their work, however, has always been integral to his depiction of character, and it is a major theme in Il sistema periodica (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984); the anchovy story in The Monkey’s Wrench is, in fact, a partial reworking of one of the chapters of The Periodic Table. In The Monkey’s Wrench, wartime events are mentioned only in passing and the work theme is wholly dominant.

Levi always considered himself to be more of a chemist than a writer. The Monkey’s Wrench was published a year after he had retired from his scientific post and had begun to devote himself to writing. Its interior argument about the relative advantages of working with materials or words reflects his own struggle of that time.

At the end of the book, after listening to the narrator’s anchovy story, Faussone urges him not to give up his work as a chemist: “Doing things that you can touch with your hands,” he says, “has an advantage; you can make comparisons and understand how much you’re worth. You make a mistake, you correct it, and next time you don’t make it. But you are older than me,” he adds, “and maybe you’ve already seen enough things in your life.”

In retrospect, there is a sadness about these final words. Levi’s death in May, 1987, was attributed to suicide. Perhaps he had, indeed, “seen enough things” in his life.