A TRANQUIL STARby PRIMO LEVI
Issue of 2007-02-12
Once upon a time, somewhere in the universe very far from here, lived a peaceful star, which moved peacefully in the immensity of the sky, surrounded by a crowd of peaceful planets about which we have not a thing to report. This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter’s difficulties begin. We have written “very far,” “big,” “hot,” “enormous”: Australia is very far, an elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath, Everest is enormous. It’s clear that something in our lexicon isn’t working.
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. For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It’s a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and as long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it’s human. It doesn’t go beyond what our senses tell us. Until two or three hundred years ago, small meant the scabies mite; there was nothing smaller, nor, as a result, was there an adjective to describe it. The sea and the sky were big, in fact equally big; fire was hot. Not until the thirteenth century was the need felt to introduce into daily language a term suitable for counting “very” numerous objects, and, with little imagination, “million” was coined. A while later, with even less imagination, “billion” was coined, with no care being taken to give it a precise meaning, since the term today has different values in different countries.
Not even with superlatives does one get very far: how many times as high as a high tower is a very high tower? Nor can we hope for help from disguised superlatives, like “immense,” “colossal,” “extraordinary”: to relate the things that we want to relate here, these adjectives are hopelessly unsuitable, because the star we started from was ten times as big as our sun, and the sun is “many” times as big and heavy as our Earth, whose size so overwhelms our own dimensions that we can represent it only with a violent effort of the imagination. There is, of course, the slim and elegant language of numbers, the alphabet of the powers of ten, but then this would not be a story in the sense in which it wants to be a story; that is, a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.
This tranquil star wasn’t supposed to be so tranquil. Maybe it was too big: in the far-off original act in which everything was created, it had received an inheritance too demanding. Or maybe it contained in its heart an imbalance or an infection, as happens to some of us. It’s customary among the stars to quietly burn the hydrogen they are made of, generously giving energy to the void, until they are reduced to a dignified thinness and end their career as modest white dwarfs. The star in question, however, when some billions of years had passed since its birth, and its companions began to rarefy, was not satisfied with its destiny and became restless—to such a point that its restlessness became visible even to those of us who are “very” distant and circumscribed by a “very” brief life.
Of this restlessness Arab and Chinese astronomers were aware. The Europeans, no: the Europeans of that time, which was a time of struggle, were so convinced that the heaven of the stars was immutable, was in fact the paradigm and kingdom of immutability, that they considered it pointless and blasphemous to notice changes. There could be none—by definition there were none. But a diligent Arab observer, equipped only with good eyes, patience, humility, and the love of knowing the works of his God, had realized that this star, to which he was very attached, was not immutable. He had watched the star for thirty years, and had noticed that it oscillated between the fourth and the sixth of the six magnitudes that had been described many centuries earlier by a Greek, who was as diligent as he, and who, like him, thought that observing the stars was a route that would take one far. The Arab felt a little as if it were his star: he wanted to place his mark on it, and in his notes he called it al-Ludra, which in his dialect means “the capricious one.” Al-Ludra oscillated, but not regularly: not like a pendulum; rather, like someone who is at a loss between two choices. It completed its cycle sometimes in one year, sometimes in two, sometimes in five, and it didn’t always stop in its dimming at the sixth magnitude, which is the last visible to the naked eye: at times it disappeared completely. The patient Arab counted seven cycles before he died: his life had been long, but the life of a man is always pitifully brief compared with that of a star, even if the star behaves in such a way as to arouse suspicions about its eternity.
After the death of the Arab, al-Ludra, although provided with a name, did not attract much interest, because the variable stars are so many, and also because, starting in 1750, it was reduced to a speck, barely visible with the best telescopes of the time. But in 1950 (and the message has only now reached us) the illness that must have been gnawing at it from within reached a crisis, and here, for the second time, our story, too, enters a crisis: now it is no longer the adjectives that fail but the facts themselves. We still don’t know much about the convulsive death-resurrection of stars: we know that, fairly often, something flares up in the atomic mechanism of a star’s nucleus and then the star explodes, on a scale not of millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes.We know that these events are among the most cataclysmic that the sky holds; but we understand only—and approximately—the how, not the why. We’ll be satisfied with the how.
An observer who, to his misfortune, found himself on October 19th of 1950, at ten o’clock our time, on one of the silent planets of al-Ludra would have seen, “before his very eyes,” as they say, his gentle sun swell, not a little but “a lot,” and would not have been present at the spectacle for long. Within a quarter of an hour he would have been forced to seek useless shelter against the intolerable heat—and this we can affirm independently of any hypothesis concerning the size and shape of this observer, provided that he was constructed, like us, of molecules and atoms—and in half an hour his testimony, and that of all his fellow-beings, would end. Therefore, to conclude this account we must base it on other testimony, that of our earthly instruments, for which the event, in its intrinsic horror, happened in a “very” diluted form and, besides, was slowed down by the long journey through the realm of light that brought us the news. After an hour, the seas and ice (if there were any) of the no longer silent planet boiled up; after three, its rocks melted and its mountains crumbled into valleys in the form of lava. After ten hours, the entire planet was reduced to vapor, along with all the delicate and subtle works that the combined labor of chance and necessity, through innumerable trials and errors, had perhaps created there, and along with all the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined that sky, and had wondered what was the value of so many little lights, and had found no answer. That was the answer.
After one of our days, the surface of the star had reached the orbit of its most distant planets, invading their sky and, together with the remains of its tranquillity, spreading in all directions—a billowing wave of energy bearing the modulated news of the catastrophe.
Ramón Escojido was thirty-four and had two charming children. With his wife he had a complex and tense relationship: he was Peruvian and she was of Austrian origin, he solitary, modest, and lazy, she ambitious and eager for social life. But what social life can you dream of if you live in an observatory at an altitude of twenty-nine hundred metres, an hour’s flight from the nearest city and four kilometres from an Indian village, dusty in summer and icy in winter? Judith loved and hated her husband, on alternate days, sometimes even in the same instant. She hated his wisdom and his collection of shells; she loved the father of her children, and the man who was under the covers in the morning.
They reached a fragile accord on weekend outings. It was Friday evening, and they were getting ready with noisy delight for the next day’s excursion. Judith and the children were busy with the provisions; Ramón went up to the observatory to prepare the photographic plate for the night. In the morning, he struggled to free himself from the children, who overwhelmed him with lighthearted questions: How far was the lake? Would it still be frozen? Had he remembered the rubber raft? He went into the darkroom to develop the plate; he dried it and placed it beside the plate that he had made seven days earlier. He examined both under the microscope: good, they were identical; he could leave in tranquillity. But then he had a scruple and looked more carefully, and realized that there was something new—not a big thing, a barely perceptible spot, but it wasn’t there on the old plate. When something like this shows up, ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s a speck of dust (one can’t be too clean in the workplace) or a microscopic defect in the emulsion; but there is also the minuscule probability that it’s a nova, and one has to make a report, subject to confirmation. Farewell, outing: he would have to retake the photograph on the following two nights. What would he tell Judith and the children?
Translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein.