THE SIXTH DAY AND OTHER TALES, By Primo Levi. Translated by Raymond
Rosenthal New York & London: Summit Books. 222 pp., $18.95
IT would not be amiss to describe the Italian writer Primo Levi
(1919-1987) as a modern-day Renaissance man. His accomplishments -
in the realms of chemistry, his first vocation, and literature, his
later love - may not have rivaled those of a Leonardo da Vinci, but
like the keenest minds of the Renaissance, Levi's ranged freely over
He, too, was a synthesizer, working toward a coherent vision of
the world that would incorporate the various truths of chemistry,
biology, cybernetics, psychology, religion, philosophy, aesthetics,
ethics, politics, and whatever might be left under the heading of
human nature that did not fall into any convenient category.
Convinced as a young chemist that the "hard truths" of science
were the best possible antidote to the lies and bluster of politics,
Levi later joined the resistance when he realized that scientific
objectivity alone was not enough to counter the force and fraud of
fascism. When the Nazis occupied his native northern Italy, Levi was
arrested, and in 1944, deported to Auschwitz.
There he experienced firsthand one of the most monstrous and
inexplicable manifestations of evil that a century - until then
characterized by scientific progressivism - had to reveal.
Levi wrote two memoirs about his wartime experiences, "Survival
in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening," as well as other works on the
subject, including "Moments of Reprieve" and "The Drowned and the
Saved." He also wrote many essays, articles, poems, and stories on
diverse subjects, including two volumes of tales: "Storie naturali"
and "Vizio di forma," published in Italy in 1966 and 1977 and now
being issued in English in one volume of 23 stories, "The Sixth Day
and Other Tales."
Levi's writings are the products of a fruitful, if sometimes
awkward, tension between his need to bear witness to the events he
experienced and his inclination to explore the uses of fantasy and
fable, as so many of his literary compatriots and contemporaries
His straightforward autobiographical writing is low-key,
dispassionate, and oddly impersonal. It bears the stamp of truth:
unretouched, undramatized, but almost too carefully objective and
reserved. This cool manner, however, serves him well when he writes
as a fabulist, supplying the matter-of-fact tone upon which the
credibility of fantasy depends.
The tales in this collection, written over a period of years but
left undated by the current publisher, are short, gem-like
narratives that encapsulate complex concepts within their simple
The title story, presented in the form of a script, takes us into
a kind of corporate headquarters where experts from various fields -
anatomy, chemistry, thermodynamics, psychology - are planning to
introduce a new model: Man. As these well-prepared individuals
debate the merits of a terrestrial vs. …