It tells, in plain language, the tale of an atom of carbon, made up yet also literally true, for ‘the number of atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story is the same as one invented out of whim’. One day in 1840, this atom is prised by the stroke of a pickaxe from a block of limestone, then travels in the atmosphere in the form of dioxide until it lands on a leaf – where, fixed by a ray of sunlight, it becomes life – then follows a series of vicissitudes and transformations, in compounds both organic and inorganic, into the body and finally the brain of the author, Primo Levi, in the present in which the story and the book are being written – 1970 – where it becomes involved in an immensely complex series of chemical reactions leading to the penning of the period with which the book ends:
It may be incorrect to say that Primo Levi was a chemist before he was a writer, but possibly no other writer has ever owed more to his or her other profession than he. Not just life, in the literal sense of surviving the Lager, then later the vocation to write in order to bear witness of those atrocities, but a worldview: a method for understanding both chemistry and writing as meaning-making activities.
Thus The Periodic Table is a book that reads like an autobiography but isn’t quite an autobiography. It’s a story about memory and sense, filtered indissolubly by chemistry and writing.
It seemed to me that I would purify myself by narrating
I wrote page after page of the memories that were poisoning me
It was exhilarating to search and find, or to create, the right word, that is, proportionate, short and strong; to recall things from memory and describe them with the greatest rigour and the least encumbrance. (…) It seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant.
It’s also a political book, and the chronicle of a youthful illusion: that chemistry might offer its diligent acolyte a refuge from the ambiguities, from the hypocrisy and the lies of Fascism, as if science itself wasn’t an instrument of power, and the key to ever-more advanced weaponry and the production of Zyklon-B. And so, pausing only briefly on the years of imprisonment chronicled in If This Is a Man, Levi focuses here on the before and after, setting at length the atmosphere of the slow wait for the ruin to come:
Outside the walls of the Institute of Chemistry it was dark, and it was the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned defeated from Munich, Hitler had walked into Prague without firing a shot, Franco had subdued Barcelona and reigned in Madrid. Fascist Italy, a minor pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of imminent catastrophe formed like a slimy dew on the houses and in the streets, in the cautious conversations and the sleeping consciences.
From the illusion follows the disillusion: chemistry doesn’t offer a surer path to Truth, but its study disciplines the mind, like the practice of writing. By structuring his stories as if following Mendeleev’s table of the elements, Levi toys with his muse and with the reader, for his periodic table is a plaything oscillating freely between the metaphoric and the literal. Thus ‘Argon’ is the story of Levi’s ancestors, whom he likens to inert gases due to their contemplative outlook, their aversion to changing their world, and ‘Iron’ the story of his formative friendship with Sandro Delmastro, who went on to become a martyr of the Resistance; but elsewhere – ‘Nickel’, ‘Gold’, “Carbon’ – the elements star as themselves, confounding the temptation to pursue the chemical symbolism further.
For The Periodic Table is also a book about work. About the work of living – as in the title of the aphoristic diary of poet Cesare Pavese, beloved to Levi – but also the work one does for a living. Here, as in his novel The Wrench, Levi indulges in his passion for exploring minutely the daily practices involved in people’s trades, beginning with his own.
Finally, this is a book about the work of memory. Of the futility of attempting to bring Sandro Delmastro back to life through his book, Levi writes:
I know today that it is a hopeless task to clothe a man in words, to bring him back to life on the written page: and especially a man like Sandro. He wasn’t a man to tell stories about, nor dedicate monuments to – he laughed at monuments. He lived through his actions alone and now that his actions are over, nothing of him remains. Nothing but words, precisely.
But then he dedicates the memory of his friend Alberto – the Alberto of If This Is a Man, who left the Lager on a forced death march and whose fate is unknown, save for the certainty of his death – the most heart-rending page in the book.
For him resignation, pessimism, despair were abominable and culpable: he didn’t accept the concentrationary universe, he rejected it both with his instinct and with his reason, and he didn’t let himself be corrupted by it. He was a man of good and strong will, and had remained miraculously free, and his words and his deeds were free: he hadn’t bowed his head, he hadn’t bent his back. A gesture of his, a word of his, a smile of his could make you feel like you were free, they ripped a hole in the rigid fabric of the camp, and everyone who came in contact with him realised this, even those who didn’t speak his language. I believe that nobody, in that place, was loved as much as he was.
Primo Levi was in Auschwitz seventy years ago this day, when Soviet troops liberated the camp.