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needing to be better known, this small, darkly beautiful book with a starry sky on the cover, called A tranquil star: unpublished stories despite a list in the back showing where and when each story was published – in Italy.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As with all “unpublished stories”, this is not the book to read if you are just discovering this extraordinary writer.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.
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.