The Periodic Table by Primo Levi – a review
I had in a drawer an illuminated parchment on which was written in elegant characters that on Primo Levi, of the Jewish race, had been conferred a degree in Chemistry summa cum laude. It was therefore a dubious document, half glory and half derison, half absolution and half condemnation. It had remained in that drawer since July 1941, and now we were at the end of November. The world was racing to catastrophe, and around me nothing was happening. The Germans had spread like a flood in Poland, Norway, Holland, France, and Yugoslavia and had penetrated the Russian steppes like a knife cutting through butter. The United States did not move to help the English, who remained alone. I could not find work and was wearing myself out looking for any sort of paid occupation; in the next room my father, prostrated by a tumor, was living his last months.
The doorbell rang – it was a tall, thin young man wearing the uniform of the Italian army, and I immediately recognized in him the figure of the messenger, the Mercury who guides souls, or, if one wishes, the annunciatory angel. In short, the person for whom everyone waits, whether he knows it or not, and who brings the heavenly message that changes your life for good or ill, you don’t know which until he opens his mouth.
Levi was one of many European Jews who were used as slave labour by the Nazis and many of his books are about his ordeal in Auschwitz. In The Periodic Table, however, which he published in 1975, he explores different periods of his life. He calls the book a history and it is organized in twenty-one chapters, each one titled with the name of a chemical element.
As a trained chemist and a born poet Levi immersed himself in the elements, seeing different aspects of himself and the society he was a part of reflected in and by the chemical ‘characters’ with which he spent his days.
The book offers little in the way of a continuous narrative, except in as much as a man’s life is depicted in snatches of memory, of insights, of hopes and expectations, of victories and losses. But The Periodic Table also manages to convey something of the urgency and the tragedy of the 20th century, where nationalist pride and joy rode hand in hand with apathy, disillusion and cruelty.
Most people would not wish to read about the life of a chemist, but Levi’s chemist is a detective unravelling the secrets of matter and a philosopher searching for meaning in life. He is in love with the elements and enough of a poet to be able to convey that to his readers. But there is still more in this wholly original book; details of daily life in a Fascist state, and the life process itself traced through the cycles of a single carbon atom.
The Periodic Table manages to blend history, chemistry, and memoir. A unique achievement.