The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays - Primo Levi, Raymond Rosenthal, Lorenzo Mondo 2.5 stars:

The Mirror Maker is a hybrid - the first half is made up of Levi's short stories; the second, of his essays. Overall, I wasn't very impressed but there were some interesting highlights.

Among the stories, I found "Force Majeure" the best. It's the story of an anonymous man who is confronted with a force majeure in the guise of a sailor who proceeds to utterly humiliate him publicly. The final paragraph reminded me forcefully of Somerset Maugham. As he's one of my favorites, that's probably why it stays with me:

M. got to his feet, put on his glasses, and straightened his clothes. He made a rapid inventory: were there side advantages, advantages that someone trampled on derived from his condition? Compassion, sympathy, greater attention, less responsibility? No, because M. live alone. There weren't any, nor would there be any; or, if so, they would be minimal. The duel had not resembled its models: it had been unbalanced, unfair, dirty, and had dirtied him. The models, even the most violent, are chivalrous; life is not. He set out for his appointment, knowing that he would never be the same man as before. (p. 65)


I also enjoyed "The Great Mutation" and "The Tommy-Gun Under the Bed."

Among the essays, I found these the most interesting:

"The Struggle for Life," which questions the assumptions of radical egalitarianism; "Spears Become Shields," which asks for a small step toward making a more peaceful world (particularly topical considering the state of the world today); and the last three essays, "The Dispute among German Historians," "Defiance in the Ghetto," and "Hatching the Cobra."

The first of these latter essays attempts to illustrate why the Shoah is distinct from the Soviet gulag and previous and subsequent genocides. It boils down to intention: The Germans set about to wipe out an entire people (and had designs on other "undesirables" once the Jews were taken care of); the deaths of gulag prisoners was incidental, the result of neglect and indifference but not of ideology. I'm not sure the distinction is important. Both gulag and Lager were wrong; both should never have been allowed to occur.

The second essay celebrates the hopeless rebellion of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1944:

At a distance of forty years and in an ever more restless world, we do not want the sacrifice of the Warsaw Ghetto insurgents to be forgotten. They have demonstrated that even when everything is lost, it is granted to man to save, together with his own dignity, that of future generations. (pp. 170-1)


And in the final essay, Levi demands that scientists ask themselves what the point of their work is and "choose from the field that which may render less painful and less dangerous the journey of your contemporaries, and of those who come after you. Don't hide behind the hypocrisy of neutral science: you are educated enough to be able to evaluate whether from the egg you are hatching will issue a dove or a cobra or a chimera or perhaps nothing at all." (pp. 175-6)