A Tranquil Star

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(314)

Primo Levi, Penguin, £20

This collection of previously unpublished stories is big literary news. It is part of a new translation of Levi's collected works on the 20th anniversary of his death, and offers some fantastical and intensely dark riffs and satires.

Levi is most widely known in Britain for his Holocaust writings: the memoirs/witness statements he produced about becoming an adult under racial laws and being incarcerated in Auschwitz. If This is a Man is rightly regarded as one of the most important works of literature ever written. His work as an industrial chemist (he managed a paint factory) also infuses his work. The Periodic Table, in which formative biographical episodes are recounted as chemical elements, is also essential reading.

The Tranquil Star consists of 17 short stories divided into "early" (1949-71) and "later" (1973-86). While their unexpectedness and difference from the measured authenticity of his Holocaust writings have been noted by commentators, they resonate with Levi's established themes, traversing magical dreamscapes and everyday life in constant collision with catastrophe and systematic brutality.

The opening story, "The Death of Marinese", describes the final, fevered but ultrarational ten seconds in the life of a captured partisan, who, as he is being transported in a truck, decides to set off the grenade in the belt of his German guard. This echoes Levi's own impulse when he was captured, as recorded in The Periodic Table. Levi drew back from the act of suicide bombing, but the story acts as a kind of wish fulfilment, telling how Marinese's comrades have remembered him.

The imaginary worlds of "Censorship in Bitinia" and "Bureau of Vital Statistics" revolve respectively around the desk duties of a censor and a recorder of deaths. Focusing on the humdrum repetitiveness and stress they labour under, the stories coolly manufacture surreal elements which, like Franz Kafka's clerk who turns into an insect in Metamorphosis, underpin rather than detract from the contextual lifelike banality. You chuckle, and then sicken, recognising the depths to which the capitalist state will stoop in the pursuit of repression and performance targets.

Several stories interrogate concepts of literature and authorship. The erudite and somewhat Borgesian "In the Park" invents a playground dimension populated by characters from famous books. There are five or six Cleopatras (Shakespeare's, Pushkin's, Shaw's, etc), who can't stand each other. Calandrina (a hero in Boccaccio), Dickens's Pickwick and one "who doesn't drink and doesn't pay" - the Ancient Mariner - consort in a tavern. Some inhabitants have heads and hats but no faces - these are unsuccessful characters who made little impression.

The title story explores the function of description and the importance of accuracy in writing (Levi wrote If This is a Man in only a few months, straight after his liberation, desperate to tell the truth about the Holocaust), but the fluidity of definition. "This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter's difficulties begin... An elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath, Everest is enormous. It's clear that something in our lexicon isn't working."

You will go on to meet a kangaroo who attends a society banquet, alien fans of TV tomato puree ads and two Western ethnographers in sticky negotiations with Bolivian Indians. You will experiment with a magic paint that protects against bad luck and learn that, while Levi was kicked out of the army for being Jewish in 1938, when he returned from Auschwitz after the war he was called up for national service.

Like much brilliant experimental writing, these stories fizz, perplex, illuminate and startle and, like burning sparklers on firework night, the best bit is when you scribble the singeing sparks in the dark air to make your own shapes and definitions. They will set your mind and heart alight and then send you running back to read Levi's master works again.