Bang, Crash, Crack

Elizabeth Lowry

The Italian writer, chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi died twenty years ago, on 11 April 1987, when he plummeted down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. He was 67. The coroner’s verdict was straightforward: suicide. The unexpected death of this apparently serene and self-controlled man, particularly the violent and dramatic nature of it, at first stunned his readers, but within weeks the event had come to be regarded as inevitable. The consensus, in the words of Levi’s friend Ferdinando Camon, was that Levi’s suicide should be ‘backdated to 1945. It did not happen then because Primo wanted (and had to) write. Now, having completed his work, he could kill himself. And he did.’ The Drowned and the Saved, which Levi finished in 1986, was the end of his cycle of memoirs, begun in 1946 soon after his release from Auschwitz.

Levi’s death has even so been followed by much speculation about the ‘real’ reason for it. Some have tried urgently to prove that the fall down the stairwell was an accident, as if to acknowledge that for such an impartial, humane writer to have chosen suicide would somehow invalidate the supremely civilised and dignified message of his books. Either that, or Levi finally succumbed to a lifelong depression . . . to a sudden raptus or mental seizure . . . to the drying-up of his inspiration . . . to the high personal cost of bearing witness to the Holocaust by writing about it. None of this is, or should be, remotely relevant to how we read Levi, but it is impossible to avoid engaging with the question of Levi’s suicide because it touches directly on a myth about Levi as writer that Levi himself put in circulation. Camon’s verdict on his friend’s death is rooted in this myth: that Levi was primarily a historical witness rather than a creative artist, and that his writing about Auschwitz represents the essence of his output. Levi died because Auschwitz claimed him, just as Levi had written because Auschwitz gave him a reason to write. The idea that he had been driven to put pen to paper by his experience of the death camp, and that it was unlikely that he would otherwise ever have written, was one with which Levi tacitly agreed, asserting in the preface to If This Is a Man that after liberation the need to tell his story to the world had taken on for him ‘the character of an immediate and violent impulse’. Years later he compared himself, in The Periodic Table, to the ancient mariner, living in agony until his tale should have been fully told; and he included a verse from Coleridge as epigraph to The Drowned and the Saved.

And yet, as Levi’s biographer Carole Angier has pointed out, to privilege the image of Levi as recorder over that of storyteller is to distort his achievement. Levi wrote at least three short stories before the war (two, ‘Lead’ and ‘Mercury’, can be found in The Periodic Table; the third was published for the first time in Angier’s biography, The Double Bond, in 2002). Although he insisted that before the publication of what he called his ‘first novel’, If Not Now, When? in 1982, he was not ‘a fully fledged writer’ because he had never yet tackled fiction, this is not strictly accurate either: all his writing after If This Is a Man, from its sequel, The Truce, to the autobiographical material in The Periodic Table, contains substantial elements of fiction, and of disguise. This is not to throw doubt on the veracity of Levi’s memories, or the scrupulous care he took over his account in each case; rather, it is to reassert his importance first and foremost as a writer – as a creator of shapely and artful literary texts. Levi acknowledges this function when he notes, in the preface to If This Is a Man, that although its chapters were written ‘in order of urgency. The work of tightening up is more studied, and more recent’. When he was older he was happy to admit that he had ‘constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting at all’. The reality, as he conceded, is that ‘writing is never spontaneous.’ So too, as he pointed out in an interview with Philip Roth, the truth told in The Truce is ‘filtered truth’, each episode having been ‘preceded by countless verbal versions’ and retouchings as it was recounted by Levi to his friends and family.

Levi’s writing about the Holocaust and its aftermath, in other words, is not simply history or ‘testimony’; Levi was not an Auschwitz survivor who stumbled into writing, but a writer to his fingertips from very early on. Discussion of and interest in his output should not, then, be limited to his memoirs. And yet this is precisely what tends to happen, in Italy and abroad. The publication history of the pieces in A Tranquil Star, brought out to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, is a case in point: they are taken from a longer volume, called Lilít e Altri Racconti (‘Lilith and Other Stories’), which first appeared in Italian in 1981, being a collection of stories that Levi had previously published in various newspapers. In the original collection the stories were divided into three sections. The first section, consisting of pieces about the Holocaust, was subsequently brought out in the US and Britain in 1986 as Moments of Reprieve; the tales in parts two and three, which are less easy to classify, were not thought interesting enough for an English market and have, until now, never been translated. It is from these last two sections that the selection in A Tranquil Star is drawn, in what one of its translators, Ann Goldstein, has described as ‘a sort of antipasto’ for a projected English language edition of the complete Levi in 2010.

The Levi we meet in A Tranquil Star is not the ‘well-mannered cicerone of hell’, in Cynthia Ozick’s memorable phrase, who narrates ‘mortal horror in a decorous voice’. If This Is a Man never gives us what we expect. How to describe Auschwitz? Auschwitz is indescribable; our language isn’t up to it. This – the sense that the grinding absurdity and implausible grotesqueness of the camp cannot possibly be captured by rhetorical shading – is one of Levi’s major concerns. Instead of expressing rage, the narrative voice is inflected by a disconcerting neutrality, delivering a forensic assessment of what Levi describes as ‘pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment’ to determine ‘what is essential and what is adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life’. But the subjective dimension, the anger, is there in If This Is a Man, just as it is more nakedly there in The Drowned and the Saved, even if it is bitten back. It is there in Levi’s contempt for the Kapo who wipes his hand on Levi’s shoulder, as if Prisoner 174517 were a rag and no longer a human being; in his revulsion at his own cowed resignation following the hanging of the Birkenau rebels; in his horror at Doktor Pannwitz of the Auschwitz-Buna rubber factory, in whose perfectly detached look, ‘which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds’, Levi detects ‘the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany’. Far more noticeable than the anger, though (and this is perhaps why Levi is so often, wrongly, referred to as having ‘forgiven’ his torturers), is the sense that he conveys of being too winded by the sheer improbability of this hell to do anything other than record it: faithfully, meticulously, dispassionately. And then there is the book’s humour, which is rarely if ever mentioned. Beyond black, it seeps out unstoppably as a by-product of the pressure to be accurate. Levi’s deadpan observations on the Nazis’ determination to run the necropolis of Auschwitz, choked with the dead and dying, like a fully functional military barracks – complete with oompah march music, geometrical bed-making and sententious slogans in the latrines – are as bleakly funny as anything in Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. The book is driven by the attempt to understand something beyond ordinary comprehension, by Levi’s constant sense, as he later explained to his German translator, of ‘a painful void, a puncture, a permanent stimulus that insists on being satisfied’.

This, then, is the Levi of the Auschwitz memoirs: aghast, but always rigorous, reasonable, polite and forbearing. He saw it as his duty to try to make sense of things, to eschew vengefulness. He was not the Count of Monte Cristo, he protested in ‘Vanadium’ in The Periodic Table. It’s to Levi’s stories that we must go to find his non-rational or shadow side. His use of words is as precise as ever, his concerns largely unchanged, but the rules of engagement are different: the 17 pieces in A Tranquil Star are variously teasing, satirical, fantastical and occasionally macabre. In their deliberate avoidance of realism, their knowing engagement with the conventions of science fiction and allegory, they are reminiscent not so much of the Levi that English readers have come to know as of the playful and sometimes sinister fiction of Borges or Kafka. Even the most seemingly light-hearted have a darker edge. ‘The TV Fans from Delta Cep.’, a spoof science fiction story, pretends to be a letter sent by an alien to the director of a popular science show on Italian television (‘I am a great admirer of your TV programmes, and especially of the ad for tomato purée’). This extraterrestrial correspondent explains that Delta Cep. is a matriarchy: its males cost between twenty and fifty thousand lire depending on age and condition, ‘are ten to twelve centimetres long and look like your asparagus, and when we want to be inseminated we put them under our armpits for two or three minutes’. Afterwards they are pulped (that interest in purées). The alien signs off with a request for the formulae of, among other things, Earth’s most important contraceptives, ‘anti-aesthetics’ and ‘anti-semitics’, as seen on TV. We laugh, but it’s Doktor Pannwitz from another angle.

‘Censorship in Bitinia’ engineers a similar satirical inversion by purporting to be a document chronicling recent measures to sanitise the cultural life of an imaginary country. In Bitinia, which resembles the Fascist Italy of Levi’s youth, stupidity is a virtue (a writer is forced to climb the gallows because in one of his books the word ‘brigadier’ appears as ‘brassière’ and is identified by the office of censorship as an obscene reference). The censors are animals, and the best censors are the most stupid of all: chickens. ‘They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programmes, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.’ It’s an ephemeral story, but it drives home the point Levi makes at the end of The Drowned and the Saved: that the henchmen of Fascist and Nazi Europe were for the most part passive ‘followers and functionaries . . . many indifferent, or fearful of punishment, or desirous of a good career, or too obedient’. That human progress is not inevitable, that regression is always possible in any society, even the most ostensibly civilised, is something that Levi knew from experience. He returns to the theme in ‘The Sorcerers’, a low-key account of two English anthropologists who pay a visit to the Siriono of Eastern Bolivia, only to find themselves stranded when their camp burns down. Trying to impress their primitive hosts with the fruits of European technology, the Englishmen find that their matches are about to run out and they can’t, lacking sulphur, manufacture any more; not being watchmakers they are unable to copy a watch; they don’t have the materials or the expertise to build a tape recorder; even a knife is beyond them, since to make one would require ‘some special rocks, rocks that burn and that aren’t found in this country, plus time and a hot fire’ (the Siriono aren’t ‘that familiar with fire’, let alone coal). The Siriono, who are able to whip up their own bows and arrows from scratch in no time at all, are contemptuous. Are we supposed to see them as noble savages, free from the crippling effects of an overspecialised society? Not at all. Levi delivers his conclusion matter-of-factly: the Siriono, it transpires, could once light fires, build canoes, and work with metals, but through a combination of inertia and carelessness they have long since forgotten all these skills, proving ‘that not in every place and not in every era is humanity destined to advance’. The story offers a warning of things to come rather than a bucolic alternative: custodians of Western ‘civilisation’, beware.

‘Knall’, set in another of Levi’s troubling dystopias, is particularly chilling. Knall itself is a German word denoting a bang, a crash or the resounding crack of a shot that has been fired; abknallen in the slang of the Second World War meant ‘to kill with a gun’. Levi’s knall is ‘a small, smooth cylinder, as long and thick as a Tuscan cigar’ which, when detonated at close quarters, is able to kill instantaneously and without spilling blood. In this dystopia the knall has a certain cachet, so much so that in certain circles ‘carrying a knall – quite openly, in a breast pocket, or attached to the belt, or behind one ear . . . has become de rigueur.’ The attraction of the device is in part to do with our predilection for cliques and exclusive societies: ‘shooting the knall is the object of a secret rite in which initiates indoctrinate neophytes, a rite that has taken on a ceremonial and esoteric character.’ But there’s a sting. ‘Now, precisely because the knall kills without bloodshed, it’s doubtful that it will last,’ the straight-faced narrator says, with lethal irony. ‘Perhaps that’s why, in spite of its obvious advantages, it has not, so far, become a danger to society.’

It is impossible to read this story without being reminded of the use made of Zyklon B, another substance that kills without shedding blood. As an industrial chemist, Levi is always alert to the protean nature of matter and to the laboratory as the site both of progress and of potentially dangerous transformations. This awareness underpins ‘The Molecule’s Defiance’, which describes the monstrous consequences of a botched chemical reaction in a paint factory. The language here has a visceral gorgeousness that Levi rarely allows himself outside his short stories: ‘Coming to the surface were bubbles as big as a man’s head but not round: deformed, in all shapes, with the walls striped as if with nerves and veins’ – a horrific birth for which the chemist in charge feels intimately responsible (‘the mixture was mine’). It’s a companion piece to ‘The Magic Paint’, which explores related ideas of power and responsibility, though its tone is more detached. Tantalum, a metal that is highly resistant to corrosion, is added to a batch of paint, with the result that the paint is able to repel all forms of harm. A customer paints himself in it from head to foot, and ‘in the two or three days after the treatment, 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. Naturally it all came to an end after he took a bath.’ Encouraged, the inventor decides to try out the paint on the glasses of a friend who is rumoured to have the evil eye (Levi imagines the lab conducting a wonderful series of faux-scientific tests in order to determine in which eye exactly the bad luck resides). Still, there’s a price to be paid for meddling with nature, however undesirable its manifestation. The subject drops dead, the ‘unhappy and blameless victim of our experiments’, having reflected back on himself ‘that thing which he could no longer transmit’.

Human destructiveness, the elusive nature of responsibility, our readiness to fool ourselves: the themes of Levi’s longer writing are all here. There is only one story that seems to touch more than obliquely on the physical and emotional landscape of Auschwitz. In ‘One Night’, a train thundering across an unnamed, dreamlike landscape comes to a halt and is systematically demolished by a group of faceless attackers whose sole motivation seems to be the impulse to destroy. The story is reminiscent of the recurring nightmare that tormented Levi after his liberation from the camp: that his freedom would prove illusory, that he would wake up and find himself once more in hell. But this piece is the exception. On the whole it is better, in the words of the spirit guide of ‘In the Park’, an effervescent fantasy about the literary afterlife, ‘not to seek . . . an image of the world you left. I mean, a faithful image: because you’ll find one, yes, but multicoloured, dyed and distorted.’ The title story of the collection comes closest to Levi’s method in his memoirs. ‘If in fact this story must be written,’ he warns, ‘we must have the courage to eliminate all adjectives that tend to excite wonder.’ ‘A Tranquil Star’ is the account, in stripped and sanded language, of the death of a star light years away from Earth, but it is also ‘a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race’. The apparently harmless star explodes, obliterating everything in its path, ‘along with all the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined that sky, and had wondered what was the value of so many little lights, and had found no answer. That,’ Levi laconically declares, ‘was the answer’. This isn’t something that Levi would have said in his writing about the Holocaust: a gesture towards meaninglessness he wouldn’t have dared to make.