I’ve always had a kind of superstitious feeling about books that one comes across by accident or gift rather than a pre planed decision to find or buy.
For example I’m wandering around in a huge local Rite-Aid drug store waiting for a prescription to be filled, and I’m gazing at the paperback book rack, which seem to be mainly Barbara Taylor Bradford romance novels and the like, you know the ones with flowing silver-gilt title lettering.
But then there’s this slim hardcover book that seems out of place–doesn’t even fit in the paperback sized racks–%%AMAZON=9780393064681 A Tranquil Star%% by the late Primo Levi the brilliant Holocaust survivor, writer, poet, memoirist and chemist, most well known for The Periodic Table. The back of the book called Tranquil Star, a collection of previously unpublished short stories, “The first new fiction of Primo Levi to appear in English in a generation.”
Unspoken here is the fact that it’s the first new fiction published since 1987 when he died or committed suicide–I think it’s still a controversy.
It seemed strange for such a serious work of literature in translation by a Holocaust survivor to be found among the Barbara Taylor Bradfords. I decided it was some kind of sign: that its strange appearance there meant that I was meant to find it. The buying experience itself bore out my intuition.
The cashiers were having trouble finding the book in their bar code system. I don’t know exactly what the trouble was, but this confirmed my feeling that a Mysterious Stranger of some kind had for some obscure reason planted the Primo Levi among the Bradfords and the toothbrushes and the deodorant soap bars.
But why? For anyone? A special message for me? That way lies madness. But I brought the book home and started to read the title story.
It was a six page story and the first five pages were a Calvino/Borges type evocation of the life of a tranquil star that suddenly, for no known reason, became unstable. A tranquil star whose shifts in magnitude are only noted by a diligent medieval Arab astronomer who gave it the name Al-Ludra, “the capricious one”.
“Al-Ludra oscillated , but not regularly, not like a pendulum; rather someone who is at a loss between two choices.”
So it it a star which seems to have something like free will. A star that goes into virtual invisibility until sometime in 1950 astronomers with advanced new technology discover that millions of years ago Al-Ludra underwent a massive self destructive stellar explosion.
A supernova like explosion, an event to those imaginary planetary inhabitants of its imagined soar system of “intrinsic horror”, an event that reduced to vapor the inhabited planet, “along with all the delicate and subtle works perhaps created there…along with all the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined the sky and had wondered what the value was of so many little lights and had found no answer. That was the answer.’
Well it’s not hard to imagine what he’s talking about in a sad gentle, infinitely distanced horrified way: the burden of the knowledge of “intrinsic horror”, however distant.
That burden: In the last page of the story when he introduces Ramon Escojido, a South American astronomer who lives with his European-born wife in the remote jungles of the continent manning an observatory. There is some marital tension. An expedition out of the jungle is planned to relieve the isolation. Then Ramon he is the one who first notices the tiny disturbance on a a photographic plate that registers the beginning of this infinitely distant infinitely ancient cataclysm of Al-Ludra’s explosive self destruction.
The story ends with Ramon, realizing he will have to disappoint his unhappy wife by canceling a planned outing. He realizes he has an obligation to be at the observatory to register on photographic plates the subsequent progress of the blow up of the distant star. (“The way we look at a distant constellation that is dying in a corner of the sky”: Did Paul Simon read this story? Or was he just thinking along the same lines in Graceland‘s “Boy in the Bubble”).
That’s it. End of story. But I probably don’t have to tell you what it suggested to me: the loneliness of someone who sees, at a vast distance, a terrible cataclysm unfolding too far in past to affect even if we could…