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Richard Eder

THE MONKEY'S WRENCH by Primo Levi; translated from Italian by William Weaver (Summit: $14.95; 168 pp.)

October 26, 1986|Richard Eder

As he tells of himself and of his coppersmith father, we learn the contrast between the concrete arts of peace and the inflated abstraction and exaltation that produce war, conquest and death camps. While Mussolini was glorifying the spirit of Rome and putting up a monument, the older Faussone and some friends hammered out a modest statue of their own. They called it the Monument to the Unknown Baker, and tried to present it to the local mayor, who had to refuse it.

A sweetness steals into Faussone's account of himself. We are moved, almost unaccountably. Levi's art works without our quite knowing how. But there is at least one passage of all but unbearable intensity. It consists, in fact, of a near-silence.

The chemist tells Faussone about Auschwitz, but we don't hear him telling it. What we hear is Faussone's reply. He speaks at the start of a chapter as if the other man had just finished his terrible account.

"Well, it's unbelievable," Faussone says. "I can understand how you wanted to write about it. Yes, I knew something myself; my father told me. He was in Germany, too, in a different situation. In any case, I'll tell you this: I've never taken on any jobs in Germany; it's a place I've never liked."

That is all. Faussone takes up his next story. Levi's audacity stuns us. Auschwitz is telescoped into a remark. It seems shockingly off-hand, but it isn't. Even the most bestial of horrors must, in time, give way to the human spirit. Faussone, Levi's human, exclaims, sympathizes and passes on. He passes on. His monument to death is life.

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