When a book is fiction, readers assume it’s a true story. When a book is called nonfiction, readers search for holes.
Primo Levi’s The Monkey’s Wrench is a fictional novel. I fought against the ‘fiction’ label – the narrator is a chemist just like Levi and the narration reads more like a true, personal letter than a fictionalized account. I fought against the ‘novel’ label, too – at best it’s a set of short stories with interconnected characters.
But why did I fight against these labels? Is it because I’m still holding on to the rules and instruction I received in creative writing classes? Nonfiction must be rigorously fact checked, and fiction must be carefully crafted to rise above our day-to-day world. Does it? And does it matter? When I let go of my grudge, I was finally able to settle into The Monkey’s Wrench and savour its lessons.
The narrator is an Italian chemist, staying in a boarding house while doing work at a paint factory in Russia. The main character is Faussone, a fellow Italian staying in the same house while completing a contract as a crane operator. Most of the book is stories of Faussone’s adventures as a crane operator around the world, told in Faussone’s voice. Even that is a confusing choice — the narrator insults Faussone’s story-telling style, so why does he choose to write so much of the book in his voice?
“He’s not a great story-teller. On the contrary, he’s somewhat monotonous, playing things down, elliptical, as if he were afraid of seeming to exaggerate. But often he lets himself go, and then, unconsciously, he does exaggerate. His vocabulary is limited, and he frequently expresses himself through clichés that to him seem original and clever.”
Later in the novel we get a few chapters of live action where the narrator is part of the story, going for a walk with Faussone on his day off, and Levi gets to show off his writing. He’s a good writer! But this Faussone character does most of the talking, and he’s not a great writer. I think, maybe, that’s the point. Do all books have to be clear, understandable, emotive? No, they don’t. There are other ways to make art.
In travel hostels and tree planting work camps you meet men like Faussone all the time. They dominate conversations, they’re moody when a story doesn’t get the right reaction, they’re defensive about their skill set and compensate with a big ego. They’ve also led interesting lives and tell good stories. That’s what I took from The Monkey’s Wrench, and to really get into that character Levi had to let Faussone do most of the talking. He also had to incorporate a few eye-rolls from a narrator, so Faussone didn’t get complete control of his world.
When I was in high school I really enjoyed math homework. Learning math was sometimes painful but once I understood the concept, doing equations was a fun pastime like origami or sketching. When I was in high school I dreamed of writing a screenplay that gave other people that feeling towards math. In later chapters of The Monkey’s Wrench the narrator describes his work in chemistry, using the same words Faussone used to describe construction. Science suddenly becomes accessible. Problem solving. Proving untruths. Maybe this is an indication that I’d enjoy Levi’s other works, like The Periodic Table, more. But I’m glad to have grappled my way through The Monkey’s Wrench too.