The Voice of Comedy in Conrad's Typhoon and Primo Levi's the Monkey's Wrench
Baldwin, Debra Romanick, Conradiana
Primo Levi is perhaps best known for his first-person account of his year spent in Auschwitz. (1) A chemist by training, Levi did not begin writing until after the war, but he continued to write throughout the rest of his life, often dealing in some way with his Holocaust experience. It is less well-known that Levi was a thoughtful and appreciative reader of Joseph Conrad, and that his one comic novel, The Monkey's Wrench, is modeled explicitly after Conrad's own comic novella, "Typhoon." (2) Elsewhere, I have treated the shared philosophical and psychological convictions of the two writers that enabled them to confront the respective political atrocities of their age (the ivory trade for Conrad, the Holocaust for Levi) and to explore their human implications. But in the pages which follow, I would like to lay the groundwork for another study--the second half, so to speak--by suggesting how these two comic works respond to their authors' darker, one might even say tragic, visions of the world, visions in which destructive elements (at best indifferent, at worst malevolent) crush the very humanity out of individuals. But this very condition of competing forces and of chaotic disjunction, if the consequences are not fatal, is also the condition of comedy, a realm of disjunctions that make us laugh, chaos that is compatible with some form of resolution. And it is in this way that comedy might be philosophic, reflecting and responding to the truths of a disjointed world. While this paper would not deny the therapeutic role of comedy either in the lives of men traumatized by horror or of readers seeking pleasure, my central claim is that, for both writers, comedy--by connecting us to the concrete, by puncturing the boastfulness of more comprehensive claims, by celebrating the diminutive in a precarious world--allows us to achieve, in Conrad's words, "that glimpse of truth for which [we] have forgotten to ask" (Nigger xiv).
The Monkey's Wrench is a series of stories told by an Italian construction worker, Libertino Faussone, to the narrator, an Italian chemist and writer who bears a striking resemblance to Levi himself. Set in a remote factory in Russia, and told during mealtimes and walks, the stories are tales of triumph, disaster, and individuals encountered in a life of work. At the end, the narrator, hitherto a consummate listener, reciprocates with his own story about his own work as a chemist. As a postscript, Levi quotes the preface to "Typhoon," likening his own protagonist Faussone to Conrad's Captain MacWhirr, both in avowed authenticity and "in their view of work and the world" (Monkey's 173). Despite their seemingly different occupations--MacWhirr, a sea captain, and Faussone, a construction worker--Levi maintains that both men engage in the same type of work, not repetitive labor, but rather work that allows for "an immense margin of error," and that in doing so allows one to "follow an ancient, timeless destiny" and to "measure [one]self against the world" (Voice 123). Levi explains: "My prime source for this notion of work are [sic] the writings of Conrad" (3) and The Monkey's Wrench itself contains "a polemical charge against those who deny what you might call the redeeming power of work" (Voice 123).
But this deeply serious claim seems problematic. For both MacWhirr and Faussone are comic characters. When the ship hoists its new Siamese flag in place of the Union Jack, and the first mate Jukes remarks bitterly, "Queer flag for a man to sail under," MacWhirr looks at the flag itself, and replies literally: "What's the matter with the flag? Seems alright to me" (Typhoon 10). When the exasperated Jukes repeats himself, MacWhirr, amazed and uncomprehending, goes to consult the list of flags in his International Signal Code-book. "There's nothing amiss with that flag," he concludes, although he cautions not to hoist it upside-down, lest it be interpreted as a sign of distress (10). Another time, Jukes asks rhetorically, "I wonder where that beastly swell comes from? …