A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories

Primo Levi

translated from the Italian
W.W. Norton and Company 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 http://dannyreviews.com/
The "unpublished" of the subtitle should more accurately be something like "not previously published in English translation in the United States". A Tranquil Star contains seventeen of Primo Levi's stories, five from the 1950s and 60s and twelve from the late 70s and 80s.

In some of the stories the autobiographical elements are more obvious. A young man in fascist Italy has to do military service. A partisan captured by the Germans sets off the grenade of one of his captors. Walkers overnighting in a hut tell tales of their experiences in the mountains. A worker in a chemical factory faces the unpredictability of nature when the contents of a reactor vessel suddenly congeal. And a man confronts the moral differences between living human memories, however faded, and those recorded in a book.

The more fantastic stories involve a killing device called a "knall" (whose growing everyday popularity is described in a parody of consumer trend analysis), gladiatorial displays in which people fight cars, an alternative source of censors when humans have their health damaged and machines are too inflexible, an otherworldly but very humanly bureaucratic Bureau of Vital Statistics, a world inhabited by fictional characters, a paint which brings good luck, and a poem which tries to run away from its writer, among other inventions. Other stories achieve wonder without actually being fantastic: explorers encounter a technologically backward village in the jungle; a star interrupts the plans of an astronomer.

Some of his plots are so mundane they hardly seem to be plots at all, while others are cliches, but in Levi's hands they are given new life. As always, his writing is notable for its precision both in language and in ideas, and his stories are spare and simple but deceptively powerful.

Newcomers to Levi should probably start with The Periodic Table or If This is a Man, but the stories collected in A Tranquil Star are worth coming back to.

May 2011

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books by Primo Levi
- more Italian literature
- more science fiction
- more short fiction
%T A Tranquil Star
%S Unpublished Stories
%A Levi, Primo
%M Italian
%F Goldstein, Ann
%F Bastagli, Alessandra
%I W.W. Norton and Company
%D 2007
%O hardcover
%G ISBN-13 9780393064681
%P 164pp