There are times when I pick a book at random off a library shelf and don't regret it at all. This slim volume caught my eye for no particular reason but turned out to be one of the best collections of short stories I've read for a long time (probably since J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands in 2001, if we're going to be pedantic.) I had heard of Primo Levi and knew he'd written a book called The Periodic Table that was named "the best science book ever" by the Royal Institution of Great Britain. I also had an idea he was an Auschwitz survivor, but that was the total of my knowledge.
Now I know better. I'm acutely aware that he was not only a scientist and an opponent of Fascism but also an excellent fiction writer. The stories in A Tranquil Star are worthy of Italo Calvino, and in many ways they resemble Calvino's own visions. Conceptual agility is the key phrase in any summary of the tales contained in this book: a truly profound scientific and philosophical intelligence underpins each text, and yet the formal mental rigour never weakens or obscures the artistic heart. Choosing a favourite piece from the seventeen on display here is a task fraught with difficulty, but 'One Night' stands out as almost unbearably odd and eerie: a train is forced to a stop by a mass of fallen leaves in a desolate landscape and falls victim to a tribe of dwarves who methodically dismantle it and the track it stands on, carrying each rivet and metal plate back into the forest.