With the passing of novelists Italo Calvino and Elsa Morante, both in 1985, and of Piero Chiara in late 1986, Calvino’s assessment of Primo Levi—that he is “one of the most important and gifted writers of our time”—assumes greater meaning, especially for Italian literature. In Italy, Levi is one of three of the finest living novelists of his generation still publishing. Like the other two members of this surviving triumvirate, the somewhat older Alberto Moravia and Giorgio Bassani, Levi is of Jewish descent, and the early works which made him famous—Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959) and La tregua (1963; The Truce, 1966)—record respectively his brutal experience as an Italian Jew in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz and his adventurous return from Poland to Italy at the conclusion of World War II. Readers who know Levi only through his writings about the Holocaust will discover in The Monkey’s Wrench (published in Italy in 1978 as La chiave a stella) a new dimension to the author’s life and thought. That dimension has little to do with his Jewishness and much to do with the richness of his double life as chemist and storyteller.
Not unlike his Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), The Monkey’s Wrench draws upon the author’s rapport with the scientific world and is overtly autobiographical in nature. The unnamed narrator, like Levi, is a paint chemist from Turin and once was a prisoner of the Germans. That the narrator was once imprisoned, however, is only briefly mentioned, for that is not the central issue in this novel about the joys of work. The narrator, in parallel fashion, also speaks of writing as a second profession, and Libertino Faussone, presumably an Italian Catholic, alludes to the narrator’s being of a different faith, most likely Jewish, given the previous reference to the narrator’s incarceration. The reader knows from the first description of Faussone that he is “about thirty-five, tall, thin, almost bald, tanned, always clean shaved” and from a later statement by one of his aunts that he was born in 1943. These two facts establish the time of the novel as being about 1978: the year of its Italian copyright, the year Levi turned fifty-nine, and the year after he retired from a Turin chemical factory in order to dedicate his full energy to writing. The unnamed narrator is also in his fifties—fifty-five, to be exact—and finds himself in the Soviet Union on his final work assignment as a scientist (testing paint in an anchovies packing plant). The reason that his job will be his “last adventure as a chemist” is because he, too, is about to “choose another road: . . . the road of the teller of stories.” Out of this decision is born the novel’s frame.
The Monkey’s Wrench is divided into fourteen sections, plus an untitled postscript and a note about the author. The postscript is initialed by the author (P. L.), and it explains that “Faussone is imaginary but ’perfectly authentic,’ . . . a mosaic of numerous men” whom Levi has met. Not surprisingly, verisimilitude characterizes the two main characters and most of the fourteen stories which either Faussone or the unnamed narrator tells. Yet the tales, though hardly fantastical, are never commonplace. In “’With Malice Aforethought’” Faussone tells of an assignment to erect a crane on a dock in an exotic country where the workers cast an evil spell on their boss who, curiously enough, dies not too long after; the workers are charged with murder “with malice aforethought.” In “Cloistered” the rigger describes how, on...
(The entire section is 1510 words.)