Monday, September 1, 2008

A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi (As always, with brief personal interlude)

Argh, the book reviews that need writing are piling up. The working full time is going...well, I wish I could say that it was going pretty well, but as it happens, last week wasn't what I would call the best. But, I should be getting a pretty decent paycheck, I have today off for the holiday, and this week is a new week, right? I spent most of the weekend down in Hershey, PA on an unexpectedly vacationish vacation after plans to go visit a friend fell through. So, I had a jolly good time riding ridiculously ridiculous roller coasters, devouring chocolate and other choice food items, perusing ginormous gardens, and shopping. My college roommate and I survived and enjoyed our vacation quite a lot, especially given its impromptu nature and our sometimes inability to do things that other functional grown-ups seem to do with relative ease. I'm quite proud of us, as a matter of fact.

Well, now, I've got a Penguin classic for you. Blog a Penguin Classic sent me A Tranquil Star to read and review, and I'll admit that I had a moment of book review stage fright as I sat down to write this. I mean, it's not just going to be here on my humble blog, it's going to be on their site, too. So, I went to read a few of the other reviews. Suffice it to say, that I now feel a little better about it.

A Tranquil Star is a collection of some of Primo Levi's unpublished or lesser known short works. Having only read a bit of Levi's more notable Holocaust-related writing, I was surprised at these clever and occasionally downright funny pieces of fiction with a satirical bent. The stories in this collection range from the macabre "The Death of Marinese" in which a prisoner of war conspires to sabotage his truck full of captors if he is to die anyway to "Buffet Dinner" an offbeat piece in which a kangaroo attends a dinner party.

Levi's stories are populated with unlikely and imaginative scenarios from a world in which book characters exist only for as long as they are remembered; to a world in which higher level office workers are charged with inventing causes of death for people whose dates of death have been randomly pre-determined; to a fictional country struggling under the burden of censoring its writers and artists that eventually finds that those best suited to the work of censorship are animals, most notably, chickens.

In the introduction, Ann Goldstein quotes Levi as writing, "In my opinion, a story has as many meanings as there are keys in which it can be read, and so all interpretations are true, in fact the more interpretations a story can give, the more ambiguous it is. I insist on this word, 'ambiguous': a story must be ambiguous or else it is a news story." This collection is a mere 162 pages long, but ideally should be read slowly to realize the many layers of meaning with which Levi has imbued even the shortest story. Each story is only a few pages in length, but Levi's writing leaves endless possibility for contemplation and interpretations of all kinds. To those who take their time with it, Levi's writing will reveal its rich humor, its deft social commentary, and its keen insight into human nature itself.


  1. I've not been overly impressed by the reviews on the Blog a Penguin classic site either! This sounds interesting- like yourself I have only read his more famous and directly Holocaust related work.

  2. I try not to let the review pile, or I will forget the gist. If time permitting, I'll plunge right in my journal entry, which will be polished to become a review post. :)

  3. "our sometimes inability to do things that other functional grown-ups seem to do with relative ease"...this totally cracked me up! (Yes, because it hits so close to home.)

    And about the review...well, you completely sold me! I'm guessing this book would have otherwise never caught my attention, but it's definitely going on the old wish list now!