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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi is one of those books one picks up at a bookstore mainly due on the strength of the author.  I must confess that what interested me the most about it was the tantalizing fine print on the cover: "unpublished stories."  My experience with Primo Levi was strictly limited to non-fiction, primarily his holocaust books "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening."  The cover flap insde "A Tranquil Star" bills the stories as newly translated into English (the first effort since 1990).

The stories follow a chronology and they depict the early conventional narrative style and the more experimental one later on.  "The Death of Marinese" and "Censorship in Bitina" build up and resolve quite conventionally with the draw, pitch and conclusion of stylistic narrative.  Since I had never read any of Levi's fiction, it was hard to detect a specific stylistic voice to them; they could have been written by anyone.  The later stories reflect a more experienced Levi, one that has honed his craft and created his own narrative voice.  The stories "Gladiators," "Fra Diavolo on the Po" and "The Girl in the Book" force the reader to suspend certain levels of disbelief much in the same way that "magic realism" does in the literature of the Latin American boom.  In "Gladiators," Levi offers the readers the tale of warriors doing battle against automobiles in vast arenas, and in "The Girl in the Book" he offers a tale of surrealist quality, blending temporal and symbolic elements nicely.

Often times, readers are hesitant to observe narrative/stylistic qualities of specific writers when the works are translated.  This can be a very tricky and misleading belief.  Although my Italian is limited to the extent of my fluency in Spanish, I looked up the originals in Italians to make comparisons on specific passages that initially felt odd.  I can say with confidence that both Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli did an amazing and miraculously job translating these.  Not only did they capture the full meaning of the stories, but inasmuch as the "early" and "late" stories are concerned, they were able to capture the development of Levi's style with both precision and clarity.  This is probably the most difficult thing for a translator to do and they both pulled it off flawlessly.

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