The Mirror Maker: Stories And Essays, by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
Primo Levi spent a substantial portion of his life, before and after his retirement from his professional work as a chemist, in writing for both political and literary Italian magazines, and perhaps unsurprisingly this book contains a collection of that mixed material, some of it fictional in nature and some of it reflecting the author’s thoughts about the wider world. And while the author’s perspective and worldview is certainly very different from my own, they are less offensive than reading these pages from a contemporary American leftist magazine because one can have a greater degree of forbearance towards an outsider who clearly does not understand America and because he focused on broader and more abstract issues where intellectual discourse is capable without rancor. That is a rare trick, and these stories certainly succeed at providing the author’s perspective with a great deal of skill. Not only is this due to Levi’s own prose style, but also likely due to some very skillful translating as well, which probably helps to remove some of the rough patches that could have made the American reading audience feel less sympathetic towards the Italian leftist author.
This particular book of less than 200 pages contains a mixture of stories and essays, mostly about social and political issues. The stories themselves include some intriguing poems, a story about an alien abduction that is preceded by an interview “The Interview,” another collection of “Five Intimate Interviews” between a harried reporter and various animals ranging from a herring gull to an e. coli in a friend’s intestine that savors strongly of intelligent design. The author’s interest in animal life is portrayed in the melancholy “The Ant’s Wedding” and discussions about supposed inventions and technologies like “The Mirror Maker” and “Time Checkmated.” Other stories relate to the author’s experience in World War II, like “A Mystery In The Lager” and “The Tommy-Gun Under The Bed,” while still other stories reflect on the violence done to historical memory by hostility between kindred peoples, as told in “The Two Flags.” The author’s essays are similarly thoughtful, including the author’s desire for peacetime development to replace weapons development in “Spears Become Shields,” some poignant thoughts on “Translating Kafka,” a chemical analysis of “The Wine of the Borgias,” literary criticism of “Jack London’s Buck” in Call of the Wild, and disputes relating to the author’s World WAr II experience as well as scientific research and space flight and even gossip.
In reading the author’s thoughts, there are a variety of reflections that one can make. Levi has both a high degree of self-awareness as well as a great interest in communicating with others across the void of time and space and language. He understands the difficulty of communication but is wise enough to reject the fashionable nonsense that posits communication is impossible, as has remained popular in leftist circles for the past few decades. Indeed, if the author seems to be leftist with regards to his hostility to weapons research and his desire for world peace and his fears of destruction by nuclear weapons, his perspective seems to be more of the humane sort of liberal who values culture and humility of a traditional sort than the kind who desires these things out of a kind of weakness or cowardice. The author may not be a particularly physically courageous person, but he certainly has a high degree of moral courage, as when he criticizes wine companies for adulterating their wines with chemicals that can poison unwary customers who want wine that is both sweet and dry when the wineries are forbidden to sweeten the wines directly with sugar. The author’s obvious historical and literary expertise makes these stories and essays far better than they would be in the hands of a less savvy and more strident contemporary leftist, and that is to be greatly appreciated.