Review by Lucy Irwin
We are so lucky to have a real Chemist in the Bookclub who was the best ever person to be leading our discussion for Primo Levi’s „The Periodic Table“. She did such a wonderful job at it, that I asked her to do the review for my blog and very kindly she agreed to do it. Thanks a lot Lucy 🙂 Here we go:
The title of this book makes it sound like it should be a dusty old text book and not a first-hand account of the holocaust, the terrifying events leading up to it, and to a certain extent, its aftermath on a man trying to return to normal life.
It was only a matter of time before I’d stumble across Mr. Levi in the grand Venn diagram of interests and circumstances (studying chemistry, living in Germany, interested in modern history). Thankfully book club also had confidence in the suggestion to read this book and voted to dedicate one of our evenings to it.
Despite its technical title, The Periodic Table is nothing of which a non-chemist (or indeed a non-scientist) should be afraid. The title refers to a collection of short stories, mostly autobiographical, in which the characters and ideas share the properties of selected chemical elements. A few are mentioned here.
Argon, an element that is so unreactive due to its happily complete outer “shell” of electrons, was not even discovered until 1894 when a bunch of chemists* wondered about the difference in reactivity of equivalent volumes of atmospheric and laboratory synthesised Nitrogen, the discrepancy in the atmospheric version lying in the presence of a few percent of Argon. Argon is Greek for “lazy”, and the reference to the inert and lazy forefathers of Levi is not lost on the reader (as was made adequately clear in the bookclub discussion). It was furthermore agreed that newcomers to the book should start with the chapter Hydrogen, and perhaps leave the chapter Argon until last.
A recurring theme in the book is that of “impurity”. Levi ponders (Zinc) that it is
„impurity that gives rise to changes, in other words, to life“
The majority of the stories take place within the backdrop of the Third Reich and the Fascist doctrine of the 1930s onward from which, Levi, being an Italian Jew, was lucky to come away from alive. Levi analyses the politics of the time with his chemist’s understanding of impurities and matter. From a chemist’s view it is often all about the “impurity”. Many brilliant scientific discoveries have arisen serendipitously from the presence of an impurity or two. Were it not for the fact that the discoverers of Argon did not dismiss this “impurity” in the atmospheric Nitrogen, box 18 of the periodic table would have remained any empty mystery for much longer. And we’d not have any fluorescent signs. The book is strewn with references to the control of nature and the definition of “impurity” with its natural importance and the consequences of man’s attempt to remove it.
In today’s fashion for ignoring facts and experts, especially scientists, one of the most prominent passages of the book for me was from the chapter Iron
„And finally, and fundamentally, an honest and open boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky? Did he not perceive it an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the improved affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, 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 fed, besides being in themselves nourishments 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 a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?“
It would seem that Primo Levi’s words are just a relevant today as they were back in the 1930s.
Chapters Cerium and Vanadium are possibly historically the most important. The first covers life in the Auschwitz camp and the second is Levi’s search for the German chemist in whose laboratory he was made to work for while there. It was Levi’s training as a chemist that saved his life. Not only did his skills make it possible for him to make a living selling things on the black market inside the camp and thus make his time there marginally more bearable, it was the fact that he could work in the laboratory that saved him from more back-breaking labour outside in the cold. After the war, Levi was employed by SIVA, where he became a Technical Director. Whenever he made trips to Germany, he would meet German businessmen and scientists, furthermore making sure to wear short-sleeved shirts, so that they saw his prison camp number, 174517, tattooed on his arm.
A final word to the themes of Urstoff, matter and transformation primarily covered in the chapters Iron, Nitrogen and Carbon.
„I was just beginning to read German words and was enchanted by the work Urstoff (which means “element”: literally “primal substance”) and by the prefix Ur which appeared in it and which in fact expresses ancient origin, remote distance in space and time). This Urstoff, however, remains unchangeable: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals to us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains Nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.“
Picture: Primo Levi Archive
This concept is no better illustrated in Nitrogen which recounts a story whereby Levi has been assigned to producing cosmetics from the scrapings off the floor of a hen house: atoms are being transformed by the chemist from something awful to something representing beauty.
The life and indestructibility of matter, and its eternal transformation is more beautifully described in the final chapter, Carbon, which tells the story of a single atom over a period of time. The atom being first released from the limestone rock that contains it, and goes on a journey of transformation through a plant, the air, a person; a beautiful finale to the book with which this same atom of carbon is responsible for the firing of the synapse in the author’s mind that:
„guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.“
*Rayleigh and Ramsay. Existence of this further atmospheric gas first suspected by Cavendish in 1785
These notes are taken either directly from the English translation of the book (Penguin) and with help from Wikipedia on historical context.