Monthly Archives: February 2007

Primo Levi, "Knall"

It’s so easy to kill somebody with a knall.

(from Harper’s, March 2007)

What is a knall? The answer to that is the whole story. It’s a small cylindrical object that lets you bloodlessly kill somebody near you. It’s the latest craze. It’s made everybody afraid of everybody. This story, first published in 1971, has the deadpan horror and backdrop of societal decay that George Saunders sometimes gutpunches you with. Awesome stuff.
There’s a Primo Levi collection coming out in April.
(I couldn’t find a picture of this issue online, so I took my own in front of Leela.)

Jonathan Lethem, "The Night They First Played Monster Eyes"

A band turns a corner with the perfect song.

(from A Public Space 03)

Very descriptive, very intricate description of one night in one club for one working class band. Fun stuff. When it came to one or two specifics, some parts of this story rang a bit false. I say this because I’m a music critic. And by that I mean: reading somebody else’s writing about music requires me to say I found something false in it somewhere. It’s a reflex. It’s instinct. The competitive negativity.

Juan José Saer, "Baked Mud"

An outcast returns during a devastating drought.

(from Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers)

The dread is pervasive in this story. The drought hangs over every sentence, filling every crack with tension and nausea. The word yellow, describing the outcast’s station wagon and the dust, appears at least once a page. Everybody sees the confrontation between station wagon guy and the man he wronged coming, even if the two don’t see it themselves. It’s an unsettling feeling, being aware of the conflict before they are. The narrator and his fellow townsfolk are essentially struck dumb by the knowledge.
The premise of this collection is international authors choosing other international authors, and presenting their favorite works in English for the first time. This one was chosen by José Saramango.

Primo Levi, “A Tranquil Star”

A star is going out in a blaze of glory.

(From The New Yorker, Feb. 12, 2007)

If this story must be written, we must have the courage to eliminate all adjectives that tend to excite wonder: they would achieve the opposite effect, of impoverishing the narrative.

The main character in this short short story is a star. The narrator observes that language fails to do the star justice. It’s “big” and “hot” and “very far away,” but those words aren’t just imprecise, they’re too often used to describe things occurring on a human scale. Stars are too big to call “big.” This cool little tangent sets the tone. After a full page of the star story — I won’t spoil the ending — there’s a half page switcheroo about an astronomer whose plans are upended by something a big, hot, very far away star did. Cool story.
Read it here.
It’s translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.