Primo Levi published The Periodic Table (Il Sistema Periodico) in 1975 in Italian, and in English in 1985. This being some years after he had published If This is a Man and its sequel The Truce, his accounts of his incarceration in Auschwitz.
The Periodic Table is a masterpiece. It is a collection of 21 reflections, each named after a chemical element. Levi doesn’t tell us why he chose the elements he did but he transforms the properties of each into an extraordinary personal narrative. He says of it ‘…this is not a chemical treatise…Nor is it an autobiography…but it is in some fashion a history.’ The Royal Institution of Great Britain placed it on their short-list of the best science books ever written and it must be required reading for every undergraduate chemistry course.
Levi was a chemist, novelist, poet, memoirist, and Shoah survivor, a giant of post WW2 Italian literature. However, he never confined himself to any of these categories and had continued to work as a chemist alongside his writing career until he retired from the paint factory he managed, in 1974. However, The Periodic Table is one work in which he manages to draw on all the disparate experiences of a rich, varied and traumatic life. In Argon, he reflects on his family and his Jewishness; in Zinc, the poignancy of young love. Iron, tells of his friend Sandro Delmastro: ‘…a loner…he had an elusive, untamed quality…’ Sandro, educated and a voracious reader who, at the same time, was at home hiking in the mountains and who became self-sufficient in the wild. Through his friendship with Sandro, Levi also learned many of these survival skills; skills that were to be useful when they both – though not together – joined the resistance. However skilled, though, they were unable to avoid capture. Tragically, Sandro was shot in the back of the neck by a burst of sub-machine gun fire while attempting to escape from his Fascist captors, and Levi was eventually sent to Auschwitz. In Vanadium, Levi describes a chilling re-encounter with a Dr Müller, a fellow chemist who had charge of the laboratory in Auschwitz to which Levi had been assigned. But what drew me to The Periodic Table is Levi’s humanity and the way he deals with the bitterness he must have felt as a survivor of probably the worst episode of genocide in history. I do wonder, though, about the label ‘survivor’ attaching to a someone who eventually took his own life. It’s beyond doubt that the trauma of Auschwitz will have haunted him and we know he suffered from bouts of severe depression that started in 1963. His death after a fall in 1987 was recorded as suicide, though there are some who doubt it and claim it was an accident.
However, of all these remarkable ‘histories’, Carbon is the tour de force. This is the work that seems to anticipate the growing awareness among environmentalists of the impact inherent in the carbon-based economies of the developed world. ‘I wanted to tell the story of an atom of carbon,’ Levi tells us. And in just a few pages, he liberates an atom of carbon from its long imprisonment with oxygen and calcium in limestone and elevates it to the ‘element of life’. So begins the remarkable story of the journey of an atom through time and space; through the mystery of life and death; though it is transformed it is never destroyed. At the same time, he is leading us on a journey through the imagination of a great writer.
He begins in a notional 1840, when a pickaxe-wielding labourer detaches his atom of carbon from a rock. It is kilned and starts its journey into and through the ‘world of things that change.’ It is inhaled and exhaled; dissolved and expelled; moved by the tides and blown by the winds until, once more in captivity, it embarks on what Levi calls ‘the organic adventure.’ Our atom finds a temporary place to rest in a leaf before undergoing the miracle of photosynthesis, only finally to become part of that ‘impurity’ that itself threatens life on our planet – carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas. And in his final magnificent paragraph Levi describes how it will then be swallowed ‘in a glass of milk’ and be incorporated in a long chemical chain that will be broken down yet again. It will move from our bloodstream; it will ‘knock at the door of a nerve cell’; it ‘belongs to a brain’, his brain as the writer, now ours as readers. But its journey is not over; it will never be over, it cannot be destroyed. Once a part of us, then part of what we will become; part of what we will leave behind us when we are gone, when there’s nothing of us, not even ‘…this dot, here, this one.’
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (2000)
Penguin. Pb. 195pp. ISBN 0-14-118514-7