Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book: The Wrench by Primo Levi


For the most part 'The Wrench' is a pretty good read, even if doesn't live up to the hype of the quotes on the back cover - 'a masterpiece of quiet patience', 'one of the sanest, most experienced and wisest books I've ever read', and 'transforms molecules and ball bearings into romantic fairy-tales'. The last one from Vogue magazine just feels completely off the mark. It almost feels like these guys read a different book.

'The Wrench' is simple book in which an industrial chemist (this character is effectively Primo Levi, who was a chemist as well as a writer) is working in a remote factory and finds himself sitting down in the evenings with another fellow Italian by the name of Faussone;  he listens to Faussone's many stories of life as a journeying rigger with interest, occasionally chiming in with a comment about his own experiences as a writer and as a chemist. The story is an ode to manual work, to having a skill which which you can create something tangible, and to finding a kind of meaning in doing good work. However, it isn't a romanticised, idealised view of manual work but is dirty and hands on, dealing with the realities of elements such as rough weather conditions, incompetents, bad planning, etc.

I found the first hundred pages of the book quite interesting but lost interest in the middle portion and skipped around thirty odd pages. I'm glad for having kept on though, because the book picks up toward the end, particularly as the story shifts to the chemist's story of when he worked on an enamel food coating for tins and had to investigate a large order from the Soviets which went awry for some mysterious reason, leading to an industrial dispute.

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Quotes

Yes, welding was important, I couldn't say why. Maybe because it's not natural work, specially autogenous welding: it doesn't imitate nature, it doesn't resemble any other work; your head and your hands and your eyes have to learn to work on their own, the eyes particularly, because when you put the mask over your eyes to protect you against the light, you see only black, and in the black the little glowing worm of the welding seam that advances, and it has to keep advancing at the same speed. You can't even see your hands, but if you don't it all just right and you're even a little bit off, instead of welding you make a hold. The fact is after I felt sure of myself as a welder, I felt sure of myself in everything, even the way I walked.

...you know the old saying: error is such an ugly animal, nobody wants it in the house.

...he said the bosses bread had seven crusts, and it's better an eel's head than a sturgeon's tail.

 How obstinate is the optical illusion that always makes our neighbour's troubles look less severe than our own and his job more loveable! I answered that it was hard to make comparisons; but, in any case, having done jobs similar to his, I had to grant him that to work sitting down, in a heated place and at ground level, is quite an advantage; but aside from this, assuming I could speak in the name of actual writers, we have our bad days too. In fact, we have them more often, because it's easier to see if a piece of metal structure is 'right on the bubble' than a written page...if a page is wrong the reader notices, and by then it is too late, and the situation is bad, also because that page is your work, only yours: you have no excuses or pretexts; you are totally resposible.


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