It would surely sound odd for anyone to talk about Primo Levi's "light-heartedness." Here is a writer who, after all, spent a year in a Nazi labor camp attached to Auschwitz, returned home by a tortuous route that took him deep into Stalin's empire, and chronicled his encounters with miracles and abominations in such books as "Survival in Auschwitz," "The Awakening" and "The Drowned and the Saved."
Then there is the matter of his death. Twenty years ago, on April 11, 1987, Levi plunged down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin, Italy, while his wife was out shopping. It was most likely a suicide and one that has been widely interpreted as a delayed reaction to his Auschwitz experience. Speaking for many who weighed in at the time, author Cynthia Ozick summed up: "It is in the nature of hell to go on and on: inescapability is its rule."
Such is our enduring image of Levi, then, a man whose soul was cross-hatched with the scars of history and who, in the end, could no longer rally the courage to bear up. But this spur-of-the-moment interpretation has been called into question. That Levi was depressed is certain -- he was on antidepressant medication at the time -- but there might have been other reasons for it, from the illnesses of his mother and mother-in-law, who both lived in his apartment, to flagging powers that left him feeling bankrupt of story-telling capital.
Additionally, he was recovering from prostate surgery just 20 days earlier. Levi left no suicide note, and his Holocaust writing has therefore been read as his despondent letter to the world.
How do we account then for peculiar lightness of the stories in this current collection, translated and edited by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli, "A Tranquil Star," stories that put us in mind of Levi's countryman: master fabulist Italo Calvino?
Early and late, they have an odd brackish humor about them: some of it black, some gray, some whimsical and puckish.
In an early story, "Censorship in Bitinia" (1961), an overworked bureaucrat in the Bitinese censor's bureau tries out alternatives to the tedious business of policing human expression. Corrosive as it is to the censor's spirit, it also can't be entrusted to machines, which perform it "in far too rigid a manner."
What to do? Maybe it could be outsourced to animals that were trained for the purpose. After some experimentation, dogs, monkeys and horses prove to be unsuitable because "they were too intelligent and sensitive." However, "surprising results . . . were obtained with common barnyard chickens . . . [that] are capable of making rapid and definitive decisions. They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, that are not subject to distractions."
How about a new genre: barnyard black humor?
In "The Magic Paint" (1973), a paint manufacturer reverse-engineers a rival's product that is purported to ward off bad luck. (A chemist by profession, Primo Levi was owner of a business that manufactured paints and insulating coatings for electrical wires.) A chemist paints himself with it and suddenly "all the traffic lights he came to were green, he never got a busy signal on the telephone, his girlfriend made up with him, and he even won a modest prize in the lottery." Only when the paint is brushed on the glasses of a man who can cast evil eyes, causing him to cast one back on his own retina, does its magic reveal a dark side.
Not every story is buoyant. In "The Gladiators" (1976), spectators file into an arena like the old Roman Coliseum to watch modern gladiators joust with automobiles -- NASCAR-friendly form of bullfighting. And in "One Night" (1979), a stalled train is attacked and stripped down to its ball bearings by a violent band of little people. "They were men and women of short stature, slim, in dark clothes, on their feet they wore coarse, felt boots."
They have the stature of Hobbits and the character of looters. When they have disposed of the locomotive and its engineer, they begin to strip the trees and then to fall brutally upon each other. "Some were seen blindly striking themselves." Is this a metaphor for something, maybe Italian politics? Levi doesn't supply the key.
Yet among the last stories is "The TV Fans from Delta Cep" (1986), a charming four-page vignette in the form of a letter to Pierro Bianucci, the actual editor of La Stampa, a newspaper where Levi often published, and the director of a science program on Italian TV. It purports to be a fan's letter from a female on a planet orbiting a Cepheid star that declares, "My girlfriends and I really like your beard. The men here don't have beards -- in fact they don't even have heads. Our men are 10 or 12 centimeters long and look like your asparagus, and when we want to be inseminated we put them under our armpits for two or three minutes, as you do with thermometers when you want to take your temperature. We have 10 armpits . . ."
The letter concludes with a request for a one-time payment and for a formula for his favorite "(a) anti-fermentatives; (b) anti-parasitics; (c) anti-conceptions; (d) anti-aesthetics; (e) anti-Semitics; (f) antipyretics; (g) antiquarians; (h) anti-helminthics; (i) antiphons; (j) antitheses; (k) antelopes." (Note: an anti-helminthic is a defense against worms.) Published the year before Levi's death, this hardly sounds the writing of a man who is poised despairingly on the brink of self-annihilation. But who can say?
The stories in "A Tranquil Star" lack the gravity and terror of Levi's Holocaust memoirs or the stories in his wonderful book about chemistry and human behavior: "The Periodic Table." But they are by Primo Levi after all, whose humanity and intelligence suffuse everything he put his pen to, and we are fortunate to have even these.
Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories of Primo Levi
By Primo LeviTranslated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
176 pages, $21.95