Primo Michele Levi was born July 31st 1919 in Turin (Italy) to an Italian Jewish family with roots in North-Eastern Spain, he later trained as a chemist and despite the racial laws introduced by Mussolini (1938), he received his Bachelor of science Degree from the University of Turin in 1941, landing a job in a pharmaceutical laboratory where he remained until 1943. Leaving his position when northern Italy was invaded by Germany, in response Levi & a number of fellow comrades joined the partisan movement (Giustizia e Libertà) but, due to being completely untrained for such a venture, he and his companions were betrayed and quickly arrested by the Fascist militia. He was handed over to the Germans & sent to Auschwitz, where he spent ten months & survived because his chemical training was useful to the Germans by him working in a synthetic rubber factory in the Monowitz labour section of the camp. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army, he fell ill with scarlet fever and was left behind when the Germans evacuated the camp in anticipation of advancing Russian forces, forcing all but the gravely ill on a long death march that led to the death of the vast majority of the remaining prisoners. Levi's illness spared him this fate. He has been described as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
The Periodic Table (Il Sistema Periodico) contains twenty one short stories, named after elements from the periodic table in chemistry, and are based on events in primo Levi's life, they are chronologically ordered and include two early short stories placed at the point in his life when they were written but are purely fictional with no pretence at autobiography. By using the Elements as metaphors, or as a process with which he can distil the tale to it's essence.
“Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey. up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries...”
In 2006, the Royal Institution of Great Britain named it the best science book ever
This short book is a series of haunting reflections, that follow a man’s life during a period of history where the word atrocity gained further depths, where horror became common place, yet his subject matter, although covering these issues, also covers young love, heroism, family ties, in fact reality. And because chemistry was verifiable he saw it as an antidote to fascism.
“how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we feed, besides being in themselves nourishment vital in themselves, were the antidote to fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not the tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?”
Argon –"These are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe” this is the introduction to a discourse on his community & language.
Hydrogen – Levi & friend discover their love of chemistry & experiment with electrolysis
Zinc – Laboratory experiments lead to thoughts on the issue of purity & the sterility of fascism.
Iron - The adolescence of the author, friendship, heroism, the racial laws and the Alps and a monument to a friend, who had no need of them.
Potassium - An experience in the laboratory leads to a meditation on “the almost same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch point” .
Nickel – About a job he was offered that flouted the racial laws in the chemical laboratories of a mine, and the realisation that what was produced helped the war effort.
Lead - The story of a lead quarryman and the first of the purely fictional stories in this book.
Mercury – This is the second tale, and a story of life on a desolate island, and the discovery of quicksilver.
Phosphorus – A position in the chemical industry, a cure for Diabetes ? and a bike ride around Milan with someone desired.
Gold - A story of revolt, betrayal and imprisonment .
Cerium - In order to survive in Auschwitz ( how smoking saved his life).
Chromium - A recovery of livered varnishes, or how something that once had meaning becomes ritual, it’s meaning long lost.
Sulphur – An explosive night time experience in a chemical factory ?
Titanium - A scene of daily life and the power of suggestion.
Arsenic - Consultation about a sugar sample, or the dangers of being a Cobbler.
Nitrogen – Is all cosmetics chicken Sh*#?
Tin- A friendly metal.
Uranium – Consultation about a piece of metal, customer relations & freedom.
Silver - The story of missing fish & photographic plates.
Vanadium- A not so pleasant blast from the past from a German Chemist.
Carbon - The history of a carbon atom from a limestone ledge hundreds of million years ago to a hand guided over a page, to impress a dot here, this one.
This is a fantastic book, I was constantly amazed by the way he transcended his subject matter, the way he takes a single element, then teases out the fibres, revealing a story full of humanity, written with an understated eloquence. This little book (p.195) transcends it’s size, goes beyond the chemistry, beyond alchemy, to a form of divination where meaning is sought and found in the basic elements, where by these elements a compass is realigned. This has a magic beauty, .
My copy was a penguin Classic, and has an introduction by the American author Phillip Roth