Primo Levi, Damiano Malabaila, short story, humor, science, technology, literature


Primo Levi's third book, written under the pseudonym of "Damiano Malabaila," was published for the first time in the fall of 1966 by Einaudi. Storie naturali is a collection of fifteen short stories which represent the beginning of a new Cours in the author's narrative. After the autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz of 1947 and his second book of 1963 The Reawakening–both dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath–Storie Naturali ("Natural Stories," not yet published in English) represented such a break in the literary patter established by Levi up to that point, that the author decided to use a pseudonym. As he explained at a later date in an interview, Levi did not feel ready in 1966 to see his name associated with "light," entertaining literature, for so far he had written only about his horrifying experiences in Auschwitz and his long, frustrating odyssey back home. There has been much speculation about the meaning of Levi's nom-de-plume, and interviews with the author have not shed significant light on the matter. At first, Levi stated that the name chosen was merely coincidental. Asked by a journalist of the Italian newspaper Il Giorno to interpret the significance of "Damiano Malabaila" for the readership, Levi explained on October 12, 1966 that "Malabaila" is to be interpreted as "evil nurse," (a situation of "mala balia") for nature is turning sour, and after the tragic consequences of racial laws and genocide it can no longer be seen as benevolent. Nature is not longer viewed as compassionate and generous, but rather contaminated by evil, and manipulated by immoral, commercial principles. World War II left "an upside-down world" in its wake, declared the author, "where fair is foul and foul is fair, [where] professors dig with shovels, assassins are supervisors, and hospitals kill." By the time Einaudi reprinted Storie naturali in 1987, Levi's real name had replaced the pseudonym. On the back cover of the book, however, there appeared another clarification for his original nom de plume. Damiano Malabaila had been used because the author saw no connection between the tragic historical events described in Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, and the overall mood of the fifteen short stories in his third book. Later, the connection between past and present became more evident for Levi, who consented to a reprint with his name. Moreover, since some of the fifteen short stories were written or drafted during the same period in which his first two books were being published, this fact offered a line of continuity between Levi's literary documents witnessing the Holocaust and his creations of fantasy. Describing a "perversion" and a "wickedness" of nature and of human nature in the introduction to the 1987 edition of Storie naturali, Levi stated that Nazi crimes were the most abhorrent, the most "threatening of the monsters created by slumbering reason," a point also reiterated in his later book The Drowned and the Saved.

Original Publication Citation

" 'Official Science Often Lacks Humility': Humor, Science and Technology in Primo Levi's Storie naturali," Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi, ed. Susan Tarrow (Cornell, NY: Center for International Studies, Cornell Univ., 1990), 112-126.

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Book Chapter

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Cornell University






French and Italian

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor