Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Primo Levi's Divine Comedy

Book Review
Primo Levi is one of the greatest and lucid voices on man's inhumanity to man; his personal experiences of being under totalitarian thinking gives us an understanding of man's ability to inflict cruelty upon another without too much thought or questioning. Levi is famous for If This Is a Man, his experiences at Auschwitz. His last work is quite different, or at least it seems like a departure from the scientifically detached writer we have read before. George Jochnowitz writes: “What would we think of A Tranquil Star is we didn’t know who wrote it? Would readers think it was about survival, morality, totalitarianism, and the relationship of knowledge to reality? They might. Others might say it was simply an exercise of the imagination or an attempt at being outrageous. Both views are justified.”

 by George Jochnowitz

A Tranquil Star: unpublished stories
by Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli.
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007, 164 pages, $21.95.

Both Dante Alighieri and Primo Levi went to hell and returned to write about it. There is a even book entitled A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz by Risa B. Sodi (1990). Levi went to a very real hell on earth, Auschwitz, which he survived and described in his book called, in different editions, Survival in Auschwitz or If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo in the original Italian). Dante went to hell as he imagined it and wrote about it in the “Inferno,” the first third of his Divine Comedy, a three-part epic poem which Dante simply named Commedia.

Neither Dante’s nor Levi’s description of their respective hells is at all comical. Perhaps Dante chose the name Commedia because in the 13th century, only comedies were written in the local dialect; serious works were written in Latin. Dante’s epic poem was considered so great that his younger contemporary, Boccaccio, added the word Divina to its title. It was this work of Dante’s, more than any other, that helped to establish Italian as a standard language.

In contrast, A Tranquil Star, unlike most of Levi’s other writings, includes sections that are decidedly comical. An obvious example is his story “Censorship in Bitinia.” The leaders of the fictional country Bitinia found that human censors developed psychological problems. They switched to mechanical censorship, but that led to errors. They trained dogs, horses, and monkeys to do the job, but these animals “were too intelligent and sensitive.” Finally they found the answer: chickens. The story ends with the words “approved by the censor,” followed by the signature—the footprint—of a chicken.

On the surface the story is silly, but Levi had experienced the horrors of totalitarianism. The fear of dictatorship seems to lurk behind the fantasy and humor of his writing. Repression of any kind is dangerous, potentially murderous. At the same time, it is stupid. The chickens who carried out this policy were birdbrains, literally. The human monsters like Hitler and Pol Pot who caused the enormous suffering brought about by the tyranny they inflicted were idiots—figurative birdbrains—who slaughtered millions of innocents and by doing so brought about the end of their own regimes.

The suffering in Dante’s “Inferno” is eternal, and so, if we believe in hell, is even worse than what Hitler did. I have always suspected that Dante’s Divine Comedy was a hidden attack on the idea of damnation and perhaps even on Christianity. Dante could not possibly have made this clear; he would have been burned at the stake had he done so. Maybe he hoped that seven centuries after he wrote people would read him and understand that hell cannot be justified. His “Inferno” is very much more vivid and convincing than the remaining (and less popular) parts of his Divine Comedy, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.” Was he trying to show that Christianity is merciless? We will never know.

The suffering Levi described in his Survival in Auschwitz is in no way cryptic or allegorical. Its message is unambiguous. The stories we read in A Tranquil Star are different. They are quite varied, but are written in a wry style. One of them, “Fra Diavolo on the Po,” is actually autobiographical. It was published in December of 1986 and is the most recent of all the works in this collection. It is about how he was kicked out of military service in 1938 because he was a Jew and then asked, in 1945, to report for service. He told them he had been in Auschwitz and was asked to show documentation. The only document he had was the tattoo on his arm. He was eventually declared unfit for service. The whole story is told in an amusing style quite different from the sobriety of his other autobiographical works.

The remainder of the book is fiction. The oldest story, written in 1949, is a what-if account, a tale of something that didn’t happen when Levi was captured by the Nazis. The fictional hero, Marinese, sees that one of his captors has a grenade in his belt. After much anguish, Marinese pulls away the grenade and sets it off, killing himself and four German soldiers. Levi, of course, did no such thing. If he had, we never would have heard of him. We don’t know whether he was in a position where he could have. It would have made sense for a Jew captured by the Nazis during World War II to turn himself into a suicide bomb, since the odds of survival were tiny. In the case of Levi, we must be grateful that it didn’t happen.

A what-if account has to be somewhat realistic. Some of the other stories in the collection are wildly imaginative, fantastic, and weird. “The Bureau of Vital Statistics” opens with a discussion of crowded elevators, especially when one of them is out of service. It is hard for the hero of the story, Arrigo, to get to his office on the 9th floor in the morning, when all the other workers in the building are trying to ride the elevators at the same time. Without one quite knowing when and how it happens, the story turns out to be about something entirely different. Arrigo is given the age and profession of various people all over the world. He is also told how many more days they have to live. Arrigo’s job is to decide how they will die, and decide he does: brain hemorrhage, fatal accident, etc. Then he is told about Karen, 8 years old, who is to die the following day. At that point, Arrigo quits his job. He is then sent to a smaller, less convenient office, where his new job is to determine the shape of the noses of newborns.

Does the fantasy connect with Levi’s personal history? His science-fiction tale entitled “The TV Fans from Delta Cep” is written in the form of a letter from a female creature on a distant planet to the producer of a television program about science. The letter writer praises the producer and asks for some information from Earth: about “(a) anti-fermentatives; (b) anti-parasitics; (c) anti-conceptions; (d) anti-aesthetics; (e) anti-Semitics; (f) antipyretics; (g) antiquarians; (h) antihelminthics; (i) antiphons; (j) antitheses; (k) antelopes.” She ends her request by saying “we had the impression that they could provide some relief for our ills.” The list is surrealistic and shows that the letter writer is coming from a different universe, literally. But the fact that “anti-Semitics” is on the list shows that even in another galaxy people want to know how to get rid of the problem of Jews. If the book had been written by someone else, we might just think of this as a joke. It is a joke, of course. It is also a reflection of Levi’s experience and preoccupations.

Levi’s preoccupations include chemistry, anthropology, history, language, and all of reality. All these things are found among these stories. “The Sorcerers,” the most anthropological of these works, is about a real people, the Siriono, who live in the tropical forests of eastern Bolivia. Two linguists, who are temporarily stranded among the Siriono, show them matches and explain how to strike them. What they can’t do is make matches themselves. They can’t find the ingredients; they don’t know the process. We see from the story that those of us who live in advanced societies don’t know how to produce the great majority of the products we use every day. Division of labor has made us rich and comfortable; it has increased our life span. It has also made us helpless and ignorant of our own technology.

What would we think of A Tranquil Star is we didn’t know who wrote it? Would readers think it was about survival, morality, totalitarianism, and the relationship of knowledge to reality? They might. Others might say it was simply an exercise of the imagination or an attempt at being outrageous. Both views are justified. What would we think of Dante’s Divine Comedy if we didn’t know it was 700 years old and written during the Age of Faith? Some people might say it makes fun of a belief in the afterlife. I know when Dante wrote; nevertheless, I feel he was mocking the faith of his contemporaries. Even if Dante didn’t mean to do that at all, a rejection of the morality of eternal damnation can be found in his epic. That is the genius of Dante. Levi believed in the beauty of facts, and his book reflects his belief. At the same time, readers who saw A Tranquil Star as a set of fantasies would be justified in their analysis. That is the genius of Levi.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Midstream. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

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