A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, by Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
When a noted author dies, one of the common responses of the publishing community to this is to combine the author’s unpublished stories or poems or essays together and to release a few last feasts of scraps for those who are fond of the author’s writings. It is a phenomenon I have seen with such diverse writers as C.S. Lewis and W.G. Sebald, and it works as well in the case of Primo Levi. Levi was a compelling fictional author who combined a love of science (he was a professional chemist during and after his time in Auschwitz in World War II until his retirement in 1977 or so) with a love of poetry, and this particular short volume demonstrates his skill in writing short fiction. One of the aspects that helps make these stories particularly excellent is the fact that they are thought provoking without beating you over your head with their message, even if they do often have a message that is related to Levi’s own experience and worldview. This, though, comes with the territory of any writer, and it certainly provides the stories with considerable charm.
The stories here are divided into early and late stories, and there are definitely some differences to be found among them. The early stories seem to be more directly tied to the author’s experiences and the later stories show a bit more creativity and more notable fantasy elements, but both the early and late stories are pretty excellent and manage to effectively blend verisimilitude and strikingly odd elements. “The Death Of Marinese” provides an alternate story of something that could have happened to the author when he was being taken into captivity after being captured as a partisan in occupied Italy. “Bear Meat” tells a story of traveling. “Censorship in Bitinia” makes fun of censors like that of Christian Democratic Italy by talking up the benefits of using chickens as censors. “Knall” provides a tale of an unusual form of violence that avoids shedding blood, while “In The Park” looks at the afterlife of literary figures as they deal with other famous literary characters and deal with their impending oblivion when they are forgotten. “The Magic Paint” mixes chemistry with mystery, and “The Gladiators” paints a contemporary (or future?) Italy as having made no moral advances since the Roman Empire for all of its technological advance. But perhaps the most moving story in this collection is the titular story, which imagines a thriving civilization rotating around a tranquil star until that star suddenly goes nova and destroys all of it without warning.
From the various other writings one can read from this author, one can see that the author had a great deal of fear about nuclear warfare and the threat of annihilation. Yet far more enjoyable than reading editorials about such a subject is reading stories that deal with the threat of extinction in a thoughtful manner that allow us to put ourselves in the perspective of those who face this destruction. Whether it is the Samsonesque decision of Marinese to take down plenty of Germans with him by pulling the German’s grenade, or whether it is the sympathetic protagonist of stories like “In The Park” and “The Tranquil Star” who bravely face their ends in ways that we can relate to as human beings, these stories succeed because of the human element within them. The author manages to combine an interest in science and technology with an abiding interest in history as well as other people, and that allows the reader to appreciate the humanity that is portrayed in often fantastic and surprising ways in this speculative fiction. If a feast of scraps, this book is a worthy collection of tales designed to save those stories from oblivion in the aftermath of their author’s demise.