Friday, December 29, 2006

Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star, 2007.

My friend Bridget sent me galleys for this small collection of Levi stories, which W.W. Norton is billing as "unpublished," even though the back cover copy notes that they were all published in Italian between 1949 and 1986. Coming on the heels of Elie Wiesel's new edition of Night, A Tranquil Star is an exercise in bait-and-switch -- the hyperbole of the "unpublished" subtitle, the copy's promise that the stories are nonetheless "classic," the phony symbolism of an anniversary (20 years since Levi's much-interpreted death). Most of all, there's the cover, a twinkling star in a starry sky, like the one over a manger. It's sure to appeal to the maudlin, philo-semitic sentiments of the Christians who make up a huge portion of the Holocaust market. All that this poor man suffered, and still he had hope!

I would have discarded the book had it not come from Bridget -- I read Levi's Survival at Auschwitz years ago, took the message, and have ever since been wary of what my friend Peter Manseau, writing on the much-more glib Wiesel, refers to as "The Hazard of Holocaust Theology". Having kept the book, I would have left it on my shelf unread, along with another book Bridget sent (Creation, E.O. Wilson's worthy but unseductive attempt to persuade evangelicals to embrace some mild environmentalism) had she not enclosed a note directing me to the title story. She's a brilliant reader, so I followed her lead.

"Once upon a time," it begins, "somewhere in the universe, very far from here, lived a peaceful star..." Just what I was afraid of! What's worst than Holocaust theology? Holocaust fables. But I kept going, and am pleased to report that Bridget's guidance is sound.

"This star was very big and very hot," Levi continues,
and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter's difficulties begin. We have written "very far," "big," "hot," "enormous": Australia is very far, 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.
The story is five pages long; 4/5 of it is dedicated to the inadequacies of descriptive language and the assumptions of theology; 1/5 to a Peruvian astronomer for whom a tranquil star is a threat to his marriage. But Levi does not reduce philosphy to commentary on the domestic difficulties of the educated middle class. Rather, the story is -- I think -- a Holocaust fable.

Or, perhaps, a fable about Holocaust fables -- a "very distant" response to the infantilism with which the Holocaust is too often described by those who would turn it not into theology, but into a set of dark (or worse, inspiring) fairy tales. As novelist Hal Niedzviecki writes, "Nothing is Illuminated" by bad Holocaust fiction.

"A Tranquil Star," packaged as just that -- to be fair, it likely wouldn't sell much otherwise -- is something else altogether, a story without meaning. A rebuttal to "meaning." An empirical gesture that doesn't point in any direction.