It is wise not to have heroes but there are certain writers, for all their human flaws, whose integrity seems heroic – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nawal El Saadawi, Osip Mandelstam, Albert Camus, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Roberto Saviano, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, and so many of the current imprisoned dissident writers highlighted by PEN International who need our advocacy. Though he would have rejected piety, Primo Levi has such an immense moral presence, even the way he wrote had an ethical basis in clarity and honesty. I could pick any number of his short stories – ‘Rappoport’s Testament’ for its reflexivity, ‘Lorenzo’s Return’ for its melancholy, ‘Carbon’ for being such a perfect encapsulation of scientific wonder but ‘Small Causes’ is an incredibly powerful example of how the littlest things can eventually have the most monumental consequences.
First published in Vanity Fair, January 1986, and available to read here. Collected in Moments of Reprieve, 1986