October 31, 2008

A funny story about censorship

I missed my bus stop today because I was reading a new Primo Levi book which I came across at the Glen Innes Community Library. I had gone there for a meeting, but wherever I go I have to sneak a look at the book titles (this includes houses I go to parties at, doctors’ examining rooms, etc.). I didn’t even know that there was a new book out by Primo Levi, who died 21 years ago, an “apparent suicide", as they say.

It turns out that it was published last year to mark the 20th anniversary of that sad event, and only appeared to be brand-new from needing to be better known, this small, darkly beautiful book with a starry sky on the cover, called A tranquil star: unpublished stories despite a list in the back showing where and when each story was published – in Italy. I think Primo Levi, with his fine appreciation for the ironies of the human condition, would not have minded.

As with all “unpublished stories”, this is not the book to read if you are just discovering this extraordinary writer. Primo Levi’s great works are his two Auschwitz memoirs If this is a man and The truce. I strongly feel that every thinking person should read If this is a man before getting too far along in life, before the jelling of their world view. Wondering how to convey economically the uniqueness of this book, it occurs to me that the subjunctive wording of the title already reveals much.

from www.ilpost.it
Primo Levi was a chemist by training, in the Italian sense of scientist (which saved his life at Auschwitz where he was put to work in a paint laboratory from which he was able to steal a bar of cerium and make cigarette lighter flints to exchange for bread, a story he tells in The periodic table, his affecting autobiographical tour of a life entwined with chemistry).

 I always remember something I overheard once during a summer job in a research lab studying meteorites. Two scientists were walking down the hallway in front of me. They were discussing crystalline structure, and one of them was saying with fervour, “If they are both real, and yet they are different, why are they different?” Primo Levi wanted to know the answer to this and many other riddles of life, and the tools he used were intelligence and precision, but also compassion and humour.

A Tranquil Star contains this funny story about censorship, which I am passing along to you hot on the heels of Banned Books Week. It is set in a fictional country with a strict, ie very busy, censorship office. Finding that too many censors develop psychological “anomalies and perversions” as a result of their jobs, a computer is employed, but this too proves inadequate when an eminent military historian is hanged for having used the word “brigadier”, fuzzily close to “brassiere”. What to do? A physiologist comes up with an exciting new solution. Domestic animals, given the right conditioning, can not only perform simple tasks but actually make decisions!

The finish of the story:

Curiously, the mammals closest to humans were found to be least useful for the task. Dogs, monkeys, and horses who underwent the conditioning proved to be poor judges precisely because they were too intelligent and sensitive. According to our anonymous scholar, they act far too passionately; they respond in unpredictable ways to the slightest foreign stimuli, which are inevitable in every workplace; they exhibit strange preferences, perhaps congenital but still inexplicable, for certain mental categories; and their own memories are uncontrollable and excessive. In sum, they reveal in these circumstances an esprit de finesse that would be detrimental to the goals of censorship.

“Surprising results, on the other hand, were obtained with the common barnyard chicken: this animal’s success is such that, as is common knowledge, four experimental offices have already been entrusted to teams of hens, under the control and supervision of experienced functionaries, naturally. The hens, besides being easily procured and costing little, both as an initial investment and for their subsequent maintenance, are capable of making rapid and definitive decisions. They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.
“The general opinion around here is that in a few years the method will be extended to all the censorship offices in the country.

Under the last line of the story appears the phrase “Approved by the censor” and a chicken's clawprint.

The books:


  • A tranquil star: unpublished stories
  • If this is a man, and The truce 






  • October 22, 2008

    Banned Books

    Every time I visit the US, I find there’s a new baseball team and a new raise-awareness date. On my arrival there last month these were the Reno Aces, and Invisible Illness Week. I thought the new team name an inspired choice; Invisible Illness Week grabbed me somewhat less, although I did enjoy noting how it had been calendared in next to good old Banned Books Week. Was narrow-mindedness one of the invisible illnesses, I wondered.

    I was proud to learn last year that I am a direct descendant of the author of the first banned book in America. In 1650 William Pynchon, who is also Thomas Pynchon’s ancestor, wrote a treatise called The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, Iustification, &c which argued a point of Puritan doctrine. It was suppressed and burned on the Boston Common, where my father rollerskated as a boy. A respected magistrate and scholar, Pynchon himself was not burned, not immediately at least. He was given time to reconsider his views and make a retraction, but he said to hell with this (my sister’s words), transferred his land to his son and went back to England, where he continued to write his tracts until his death.

    syndetics-lcPerhaps this bloodline is the reason why I’m so intrigued by banned books, the books which subvert authority because they make people think. “Ana,” I ask my Madrilenan friend with the family portrait of the mantilla-wearing countess, “What was the book again your father took away when you were growing up? Was it Crime and Punishment?” “Ah no” she says, “It was The Brothers Karamathov, he burned it in the bath.” Of course, The Brothers Karamazov, "a world filled with greed, passion, depravity, and complex moral issues” as the library catalogue record has it. I think of it as the greatest of those books that everyone who has read them can still recall, sometimes a few lifetimes later, the emotion they felt then.

    “Does fiction matter?”

    We had Iain Sharp, Gordon McLauchlan and Paula Morris in for New Zealand Book Month to answer this question and the answer was yes, for many different mischievous, thoughtful and fantastic reasons. And here is an amazing revelation which shows why we need to ask. Paula told us that at Tulane University, where she teaches, every year all the undergraduates are assigned one book – the same book -- which they all must read, discuss, etc. And she said they have to pick a non-fiction book because too many students are afraid of reading fiction!

    The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote movingly of Nadezdha Mandelstam who, when her husband Osip was sent to the Gulag where he perished, committed to memory all his poems “as they could not be committed to paper”, repeating them day and night for 18 years – “it was them, not his memory, she was trying to keep alive”; and did his own stint in the Gulag before being exiled from Russia. From his new home in the West he said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them”.

    The books:



  • The brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Less than one by Joseph Brodksy





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