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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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Iron, Potassium, Nickel (Pocket Penguin 53)

Excerpts from The Periodic Table

This selection from Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table was reproduced as part of Penguin’s 70th anniversary celebrations in 2005. I was delighted to acquire it from a stall during the Cuba Street Carnival as I have always meant to read it, and this series provides a quickly readable sample.

Readers will be most familiar with Levi’s If This Is A Man, which narrates his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. However, in civilian life, Levi was a chemist and it was this employment to which he returned after the war (along with writing). As my ability to ‘do’ science only extended to the end of fifth form – I found that the most interesting thing about this collection is how it transforms a ‘dry and difficult’ subject into memorable and moving literature.

In Iron, Levi describes how his place of study – Turin’s Chemical Institute – remains seemingly sterile and detached from, but still threatened by, the growing threat of Fascism. Lab reports are described thus: “Report in writing, like a police report, only yes and no, because doubts and hesitations were not admissible: it was each time a choice, a deliberation, a responsible undertaking, for which Fascism had not prepared us, and from which emanated a good smell, dry and clean.” Levi works with materials of such poetic beauty as “sublimate mercury” and “scintillating crystals.” They have personality; “Matter with her sly personality… as solemn and as subtle as the Sphinx.” However, the creation of iron in the laboratory is juxtaposed with political events.

As his Christian classmates withdraw from him, Levi forms a friendship with fellow Jewish classmate, Sandro. With Sandro, he takes recreational respite in the mineral rich mountains, experiencing the joys of youth and freedom.

In Potassium, Levi realises that even his beloved chemistry no longer provides him with security in a steadily more frightening Europe; like other threatened individuals and groups, he remains passive and in denial. Meanwhile, he is rejected for a student assistant position due to new ‘racial laws.’ Religious imagery, such as ‘The Day of Judgement’ and ‘The Gospels’, proves to be an ominous yet comforting new presence in this literary, scientific, and all too real world.

In Nickel, Levi receives his Chemistry Degree. Unfortunately, they discover that he is “of the Jewish race” – rendering the document “half glory and half derision”. Germany has invaded Europe and the United States is refusing to help England. Levi’s father is in bed with a terminal illness, when an Italian soldier arrives at the door for Levi.

This is an ominous way to end a review. But you must read it, for the writing is of such quality and intensity that every page is compelling. It drew me in and completely transformed my afternoon.


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