Primo Levi


The Wrench


Meet Faussone, an able tradesmen who sets up cranes around the world and enjoys his work. Most of the several short stories in the book centre on him recounting some interesting job he’s been involved in. 


Rather than remain invisible and let ‘Faussone’ do all the talking, the listener/narrator is also allowed to take on a role – the stories are clearly placed in a setting of Faussone talking to the semi-autobiographical persona of Levi. We learn a little of why he’s putting down these stories, his own speculation on whether writing is a worthy ‘craft’ compared to that of the tradesman, and he even drops in a work story of his own (as a chemist – Levi himself was a chemist) to conclude. Levi highlights the importance of the listener and the context to the stories, which, while entertaining enough to stand on their own, are enhanced by tangents of setting and response. Moreover there’s room for just a little plot and relationship development winding alongside the stories.


As close as I can think of are the James Herriot stories, although I suspect some of Levi’s fans would be a bit horrified at the comparison. That being said, I suspect ‘Herriot’ himself would have enjoyed the book. Levi’s stories, however, are not nearly as formulaic (or as funny), and Levi is a more able painter of characters that feel more authentic, and don’t necessarily need to be pigeon-holed. Amusing that Faussone feels more authentic than some of Herriot’s doubtless ‘real’ recollected characters: in a postscript Levi says,

Faussone is imaginary but “perfectly authentic,” at the same time; he is a compound, a mosaic of numerous men I have met, similar to Faussone…


There’s a grace there as well – which some would find bland – this isn’t sensationalist fiction with a sting or a belly laugh. Levi does have an agenda – to suggest that a worker who takes pride and pleasure in his trade is as good a subject (and hero) for a novel as any super spy or renegade cop or tortured academic or whatever. There’s also an acknowledgement of giving some praise to Levi and Faussone’s fathers in this, so perhaps he can be forgiven if his picture is a bit eulogistic.


The ‘wrench’ (if the translation got this right) isn’t just a symbol of blue collar labour, it’s also the wrench between the metaphysical profession of writing books and that of actually making tangible things. The ‘Levi’ of the stories is struggling with this, and Faussone’s parting advice to him is:

I tell you, doing things you can touch with your hands has an advantage: you can make comparisons and understand how much you are worth. You make a mistake, you correct it, and next time you don’t make it.

and earlier ‘Levi’ speculated that perhaps so many writers have bad stress because they can’t test their work with a level or a gauge, and are working blind half the time.


So, if you’re in the mood for something reflective, diverting, and well written – go ahead. If you’re after some action or melodrama, wait for another mood.


June 2003