With Primo Levi's sixth book, it seems clear by now that everything he has written, or will write, is so many stages in a journey from a dark cave--his days in Auschwitz--into the light.
But Levi has a particularity; one that should win him the Nobel Prize, in the fullness of time and its erratic Nobel clockwork. His darkness is full of illuminations, and his light is shadowed. Like the chickadee, he sings in winter but not, in the way of ideological optimists, by ignoring winter. His throat has ice in it.
Four of his books dealt with the sufferings of Europe's Jews, in and out of the camps, during World War II. Levi's artistic humanity struggled with the inhuman situation and prevailed. His characters prevail as well, like Eliot's Thomas a Becket, who told his friends: "I am not in danger; only near death." That is too grand and abstract for Levi. His hope is not the large movements of the human spirit but the small, specific ones.
"The Periodic Table" was a next step; a hinge book. It comes out into postwar Italy, where Levi tells of his life as an industrial chemist. Each chapter, titled for a different chemical element, links some particular aspect of Levi's experience to a meditation on the properties of these different elements, and their surprising and refractory behavior in the laboratory. Quite magically, this allows him to engage the particulars of an individual life with a wider and complex vision of life as a natural order.
The chapters are frequently sunny, even playful, but they are darkened. First, by Levi's references to his time in the Resistance and prison; and finally, by a terrible correspondence with a former Nazi scientist under whom Levi had worked as an Auschwitz slave-laborer.
"The Monkey's Wrench" comes a step or two farther. To treat Auschwitz as a place of life required courage as well as artistic vision. Yet the new book, in a way, may be a greater act of courage. "I show life by contrasting it with death" has been Levi's method up to, and partly within, "The Periodic Table." Is there any way to find an equivalent significance by showing life in terms of life?
"The Monkey's Wrench" is a quieter book than its predecessors, and, at first glance, rather puzzling. It is a series of adventures and experiences in the life of an Italian master rigger who travels around the world putting up oil derricks and working on bridges and dams in out-of-the-way places.
For a while, the stories seem oddly simple; truncated, unshaped tales such as any active, adventurous and not overly reflective man might tell. They are fragmentary, as life is; they are inconclusive, usually, as life tends to be. Yet they haunt us. What is Levi up to?
A great deal, as we gradually see. First of all, there is Libertino Faussone, the rigger. He is bluff, full of life, pleasure-loving up to a point--"I am a libertine," he says, playing on his first name, "but it is not my specialty"--and beyond that point, passionately devoted to his work and its mysteries.
These mysteries--hanging high in the air in an Arctic wind, achieving a complex fitting deep in a tropical jungle, making a 600-foot oil tower right itself gently in the ocean by pumping air into its base--stir up an urge to reflect, to recount. He reflects, and he recounts, but never for too long; he gets on to the next thing.
The man he tells his stories to is a paint chemist, who is working with him on a construction project in the Lower Volga region of the Soviet Union. The listener, who is Levi, of course--a true and fictional Levi, the chemist of "The Periodic Table"--speaks much less, though sometimes he will attempt a story or two of his own. But it is his listening that is important; it shapes and gives meaning to Faussone's narration.
The rigger is a fountain of odds and ends. He tells of a baboon who attached itself to him on a project in the tropics, eventually learning to hand him up the tools and pieces he required. He tells of disaffected workers on a construction job who get back at their boss by burning holes in a photograph of him; subsequently, the boss dies. He tells of working on a suspension bridge in India, and of a monsoon that half wrecks it. He tells of a brief love affair with a girl who operates a forklift, and of his pain after he leaves her.
The stories are ragged, bitten-off, exotic but apparently pointless. (William Weaver, a superb translator, may have outdone himself in rendering Faussone's colloquial speech so convincingly.) Yet gradually, through the man's rough perception, what emerges is his sense of life and passionate attachment to his craft. Faussone's craft--and he becomes spellbinding when he talks about it--is the knight's honor, the holy man's peace.