A Tranquil Star

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1756

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.

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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 Po,” in which Levi writes about his first notice to report for induction into the Italian military. When he reports as scheduled, he is screamed at, called a deserter by “a giant in a Fascist uniform,” and sent away. Like the 1935 Nuremberg Laws in Germany that stripped Jews of their rights and citizenship, Fascist laws in Italy prohibited Jews from carrying guns, and Levi, after enlisting on his own, was therefore thrown out of the Italian military. Insane darkness culminates when, after his survival from Auschwitz and his eventual repatriation to Italy, he is ordered, despite his obvious physical weakness, to appear for a military preinduction physical, during which the doctor scolds him for having no written documentation of his time at the concentration camp, other than the tattoo of 174517 on his arm. The story is reminiscent of those surviving offspring who were refused release of their murdered parents’ money by Swiss banks because they lacked their parents’ death certificates.

In “Bureau of Vital Statistics,” another absurdist story with an unstated Holocaust link, Arrigo’s job in this government agency is to add a cause of death to index cards printed with a person’s name and date of death. Bureaucrats like Arrigo “were all sheep and no one dared protest and no one took the job seriously” because they were insulated from death itself. Arrigo is a prototype of the Nazi bureaucrats of the Aktion T-4 eugenics program, through which, by 1941, some seventy thousand mentally retarded, deformed, and disabled people, “undesirables” termed “life unworthy of life,” were placed in state-run institutions and then murdered. The Nazis covered their crimes by reporting to the victims’ families such bogus causes of death as pneumonia or influenza.

In the science-fiction story “The Molecule’s Defiance,” a frustrated industrial chemist creates a batch of synthetic resin that turns inexplicably bad, with dire implications. It is as if nature itself has gone berserk, rebelling against humanity at the molecular level as a “monster molecule” evolves from this tainted chemical soup, “a yellow mass full of lumps and nodules.” The chemist calls this “deformed but gigantic” molecule an “obscene message and symbol of other ugly things that obscure our future of unseemly death over life.” It is clear that Levi experienced the penultimate, darkly “obscene message” in the sadistic brutality“the derisiveness of soul-less things”in Auschwitz.

“The Sorcerers,” a story based on a real South American tribe, is the darkest human answer to “The Molecule’s Defiance.” Two ethnographers study the dialect and culture of the primitive Sirionó people in the rain forests of Bolivia, who once had the knowledge to light fires and make canoes but now have regressed to the point that their only skill is carving bows for hunting. Levi concludes, “not in every place and not in every era is humanity destined to advance.” As a victim of the Holocaust, he is justifiably suspicious about the human desire and capacity for progress. For Levi, civilized society is frozen in place or is backsliding.

A story suffused with light, but dark around the edges, is the ambiguous “In the Park,” in which famous authors and literary characters inhabit an alternative universe. Writers like François Villon and François Rabelais coexist with such characters as Moll Flanders, Holden Caulfield, and Leopold Bloom. In this well-lit literary heaven, the spectacular sunsets “often last from early afternoon until night,” yet the light-filled sky turns the “color of lead” when characters from the World War I-era antiwar novel Im Westen nichts Neues (1929; All Quiet on the Western Front) are spied. With chilling, foreboding darkness, Levi writes, “Who knows how many of them would take up arms again twenty years later, and lose either their skin or their soul.”

How can one tell the tortured, untellable tale at all? No language exists to encapsulate, let alone approximate, the inexpressible darkness of the Holocaust. “It’s clear that something in our lexicon isn’t working,” avers the narrator in the last story in the collection, “A Tranquil Star.” We are also severely limited in our comprehension of human motivation: “We understand onlyand approximatelythe how, not why.” For Levi, the Holocaust was not an anomaly but a horrific yet unsurprising example of the human capacity for evil.

Clearly, for Levi, the human instincts to create and transcend will always war with and be overshadowed by powerful instincts for violence and destruction. The triumph of survival, transcending the unendurable (as Levi did at Auschwitz), is at the heart of the initiation story “Bear Meat.” Bathed in a dusklike half-light, the narrator experiences great danger and fear while mountain climbing, only to discover “at the first ghostly light” that the ultimate human achievement is “being your own master to feel strong,” to transcend.

Levi paints destructive human instincts in unrelenting darkness. In “Gladiators,” a reticent young man under “a shadow of reluctance” is persuaded by his girlfriend to attend a Friday night’s weekly gladiatorial spectacle. The gladiators use cars and forklifts to destroy their opponents, accompanied by spectators’ cheers. As the rage of sadistic and senseless destruction darkens, the young man and woman depart early and go home separately, both feeling revulsion and guilt at the insanity they have witnessed and that their presence helped make possible. Shadowy half-light has become full darkness.

In between light and darkness, “The Fugitive” is bathed in ambiguous shadow as Levi explores the human capacity to create beauty, however elusive and temporary. Pasquale composes the most beautiful poem ever written. His success is thrown into dark shadows, however, when the poem mysteriously disappears. He tries in vain to find or re-create it, but the poem is irretrievably gone, a victim of human transience: “To compose a poem that is worth reading and remembering is a gift of destiny.”

Human-created beauty is always elusive, but Levi’s varied and provocative, light and dark short stories of A Tranquil Star are his posthumous “gift of destiny” to the world. As in some of Levi’s stories, the question of whether the human race is presently at the shadowy half-light of dawn or dusk remains ambiguous. By exploring the human need to create, which wars with the propensity to destroycoequal parts of our destinyLevi uses light, shadow, and darkness to create in each story “a fable that awakens echoes and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

The Guardian, May 5, 2007, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 5 (March 1, 2007): 189.

London Review of Books 29, no. 11 (June 7, 2007): 35-36.

Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2007, p. 5.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 12 (July 19, 2007): 51-52.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (May 27, 2007): 14-15.

The Spectator 303 (May 5, 2007): 59.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 13, 2007, p. 17.

The Washington Post, July 1, 2007, p. BW06.

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