“Natural Histories, a collection of 15 stories by Primo Levi”

Wednesday 8th May, 2024 - Bruce Sterling

This volume of Levi works includes “The Versificator.”


Natural Histories (Primo Levi) (*machine-translated by Google, (appropriately enough))

Natural Stories is a collection of 15 stories by Primo Levi, published by Einaudi in 1966 under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila. They are scientific and science fiction stories, often humorous, but not only. The book won the Bagutta Prize in 1967.

Natural stories
Original title

Primo Levi
1st ed. original
collection of short stories
humorous science fiction
Original language

Many of the ideas present in the stories anticipated or subsequently inspired famous and more popular works of literature and cinema. For example, the idea behind the story Quiescence Treatment (the recording and experimentation of experiences lived by other people) is the same as the film Strange Days, made almost thirty years later (in 1995) and very similar to that of The True Name (1981), probably the first cyberpunk novel published (*hahaha). The machine capable of making perfect duplicates of objects or living beings, the protagonist of Some Applications of Mimete , is found in the novel The Prestige (1995) by Christopher Priest, whose film adaptation was directed in 2006 by Christopher Nolan.

The versifier instead develops the same subject as a story from the collection Cyberiade , by Stanisław Lem , which appeared in 1965. This story is part of the cycle of Mr. Simpson, a representative of NATCA, a fictitious electronics multinational.

Some of the stories mentioned by the latter were transposed into a television drama entitled Fantastic Tales by Primo Levi (1971).

Mr. Simpson, representative of the American multinational NATCA, manufacturer of office equipment, based in the imaginary town of Fort Kiddiwanee, Oklahoma , is present, with his futuristic contraptions, in 5 of the 15 stories. The accountant Gilberto Gatti appears in two of them.


I mnemagoghi (already appeared in L’Italia Socialista , 19 December 1948)
Doctor Morandi, freshly graduated, goes to the elderly Doctor Montesanto, in a town where he will have to take turns as his doctor . Montesanto shows his hobby to Morandi: he collects bottles containing odors that were significant in the elderly doctor’s life; and he makes her try some. Morandi leaves the doctor’s office rather agitated by the experience.

Censorship in Bithynia (already appeared in Il Mondo , 10 January 1961)
Following some research, it turned out that some animals carry out censorship in the country more reliably than humans. The article is signed by the imprint of a crow’s foot.

The Versifier (already appeared in Il Mondo, 17 May 1960)
A poet must produce, for customers, among other things, “two convivial poems, a short poem for the wedding (…), fourteen advertisements, and a song for the victory of Milan ” [1] . He is therefore convinced, in spite of the secretary, accustomed to fulfilling orders in person in the traditional way, with the contribution of the poet, to purchase, from Mr. Simpson, representative of an American office supplies company, a “Versifier”, a machine which, if appropriately programmed, can meet the requests with dignity. The “Versifier” is not free from malfunctions, some of which have a comical effect, but at least it was useful to the poet for carrying out some administrative tasks, such as carrying out accounting, or other types: the report that was just read it is in fact the work of the “Versifier”.

Angelica Farfalla (already appeared in Il Mondo , 14 August 1962)
In 1943, Professor Leeb had settled in Berlin in an apartment overlooking the home of Gertrud Enk, then sixteen years old, and had begun his experiments on birds. At the end of the war , when all trace of Leeb had been lost, Gertrud had been one of those who, driven by hunger, had entered the professor’s study to kill the remaining birds and feed on them.

«Fast Cladonia»
“Cladonia rapid” is a lichen “whose sole and obligatory substrate is constituted by the external and internal structures of motor vehicles.” [2] Studies have shown that Cladonia can to some extent affect car performance; and a recent observation “was able (…) to photograph clear traces of nervous tissue” made up of lichen “in the steering linkage of the Opel Kapitän .” [3]

The cheap order (already appeared in Il Giorno , 22 March 1964)
Mr. Simpson, representative of an American office products company, which had already sold the “Versifier” [4] to the Author , this time proposes the Mimete, a “duplicator”: not a simple photocopier, the Mimete reproduces the atomic structure of the object to be duplicated. The Author carries out experiments with the machinery, including that of duplicating diamonds (and it would have been difficult to accuse them of being “fake”, since their formation was in every way similar to that of the so-called “natural” diamonds, found in mines), and living beings, the latter, however, not yet fully functional. With amazement, the Author notes that, having proposed to Simpson the idea of ​​an economic exploitation of the device, the American company itself, contrary to its fundamental profit objectives, had dissociated itself from such applications, considering them ethically dubious at the very least.

Man’s Friend (already appeared in Il Mondo , 16 January 1962)
The Assyriologist Bernard W. Losurdo fortuitously takes a look at a highly enlarged photograph of a tapeworm , and makes the hypothesis that the distribution of the cells in it can be conceived as a language. In fact he manages to decipher it, and therefore translates some messages composed by the animals.

Some applications of Mimete (already appeared as The Wife in Duplicate in Il Giorno , 15 August 1964)
The accountant Gilberto Gatti, with a Mimete [5] duplicates his wife.

Versamina (already appeared in Il Giorno , 8 August 1965)
Kleber develops versamines, “substances that convert pain into pleasure”. [6] He tests them first on animals, then on himself. In his tendency to cause himself pain, Kleber will end up destroying himself.

Sleeping Beauty in the fridge
Berlin, year 2115. As usual, on December 19th, her birthday, Patricia is thawed out, after a hibernation that began 140 years earlier, when she was 23 years old. On this occasion, Patricia makes an agreement with Baldur, pretending to be in love with him, to be permanently thawed out and resume normal life. Once she is thawed, however, she leaves Baldur to go to America to find a frozen girl the same age as her.

The measure of beauty (already appeared in Il Giorno , 6 January 1965)
Mr. Simpson is testing NATCA’s new product: the “calometer”, a beauty meter. It exists in two versions: the female one, to measure the beauty of women, is calibrated on the features of Liz Taylor, the male one on Raf Vallone. But each buyer can carry out his own calibration on the calometer, and it is therefore expected that the device will sell like hot cakes as a gift from husbands to their wives, in whose image it will presumably be calibrated, and from wives to their husbands.

Quaestio de Centauris
Even as a child, the Author kept Trachi, a centaur , in the family stable . A friendship was soon born between the two, and Trachi had communicated to the Author, now grown up, the salient features of the centaur culture: their founding myth , their peculiarities, their feelings. One day Trachi revealed himself to be in love with Teresa, a neighbor of the Author, but at the same time the girl and the man had had a love story. Since then all traces of Trachi had been lost.

Full employment
The Author and his wife, invited to the house of Simpson and Mrs., notice that, at Simpson’s request, a swarm of dragonflies goes to pick some blueberries and places them on the table. Simpson then talks about his methods for communicating with various species of insects, the pacts he has made with them, the precision work he makes ants do, for example, for compensation in nature. Simpson only complains that an associate of his used eels to traffic drugs.

The sixth day
Ahrimane reads a communication from the “Executive Directorial Council” to its collaborators. There is the order to create a new animal species: Man. A heated debate arises between Ahriman and his advisors, each specialized in a branch of knowledge: chemistry, mechanics, anatomy, thermodynamics, psychology and economics. Before they reach a decision – the tendency was to create Man as a kind of bird – a counter-order from above warns that the team of experts is out of authority: Man has already been created, using mud, water and spirit.

Retirement treatment
Mr Simpson owns a Torec device (short for Total Recorder), based on an advanced form of virtual reality , which “arouses sensations” – stored on magnetic tape – “in the brain without the mediation of the senses.” [7] Simpson makes the Author try out several tapes, made with the collaboration of different personalities, from the one containing a goal by a Milan player, to that of a porn star, to that of an eagle in flight. The Author leaves Simpson’s office, only to learn later that the latter is completely accustomed to the work of the device and that he is facing premature aging and death.

Italian editions

Damiano Malabaila, Natural Stories , Collana I Coralli n.234, Turin, Einaudi, 1966. [with the cover flap written by Italo Calvino ]
Primo Levi, Natural Stories , New Coralli Series n.236, Turin, Einaudi, 1979.
Natural stories , in The stories , Introduction by Ernesto Ferrero , ETascabili series n.374, Turin, Einaudi, 1996.
Natural histories , in Works , edited by Marco Belpoliti , Introduction by Daniele Del Giudice , NUE series n. 225, Turin, Einaudi, 1997, ISBN 88-06-14637-8 .
Natural Histories , Author’s Collection, Turin, Ed. La Stampa , 2005.
Natural stories , in Tutti i storie , edited by Marco Belpoliti, ET series. Library n.6, Turin: Einaudi, 2005, ISBN 978-88-06-17917-5 .
in Complete works , 2 vols., edited by M. Belpoliti, Turin, Einaudi, 2017, ISBN 978-88-062-3494-2 .
Natural stories , edited by Martina Mengoni and Marco Belpoliti, Collana Letture n.100, Turin, Einaudi, 2022, ISBN 978-88-062-5486-5 .

^ Levi 2015, p. 18
^ Levi 2015, p. 46
^ Levi 2015, p. 50
^ See above , The versifier
^ See above , The cheap order
^ Levi 2015, p. 77
^ Levi 2015, p. 158

(Levi 2015) Primo Levi, Tutti i storie , edited by Marco Belpoliti, Turin, Einaudi, 2015, pp. 5-175, ISBN 978-88-06-22635-0

Italian bibliography of Natural Histories , on Vegetti Catalog of fantastic literature , Fantascienza.com