In retrospect, I remember being one of that tribe of eighth graders who, bewildered by the initial rush of quaint scientific names and signs, secretly questioned, either in their minds or more vocally when amongst the most tightly insulated coterie of fellow classmates, the practical utility of committing to memory the first twenty or more elements of the Periodic Table. Eventually, if not out of bona fide curiosity, then at least due to the dire necessity of satisfactorily vaulting the hurdle of examinations, we did develop, in varying degrees, an intellectual familiarity with that solemn Table of elements. However, no sooner did that compulsion expire than poor old Mendeleev’s Periodic Table- ironically bearing an uncanny resemblance to the innocent buildings children make with colourful blocks of Lego- was quickly packed and parcelled to the farthest reaches of memory, collecting the dust of oblivion. But what is it like for a chemist who has had a life-long commitment with the elements? What memories of youthful happiness and hope, idealism and resistance, love and loss are invoked by the Table? Can the chart then be something more than just a multi-coloured cabinet of methodically arranged fundamental chemical entities: perhaps a coded testimony to a life lived?
Primo Levi’s (1919-1987) The Periodic Table, translated from the Italian original by Raymond Rosenthal, and first published in the USA and the UK in 1984 and 1985 respectively, is intriguingly unique in its amalgamation of autobiographical recounting of significant life events with precise scientific descriptions of various chemical elements and their properties.However, the Jewish Italian author’s own perception of the work, as explicitly put forward in the final chapter entitled, “Carbon”, leads him to regard his work as neither strictly an “autobiography” nor a “chemical treatise”. Rather, he defines it as a “micro-history, the history of a trade…, such as everyone wants to tell when he feels close to concluding the arc of his career, and art ceases to be long.” Similarly, in another chapter titled, “Silver”, Levi candidly confesses to his friend Cerrato, that he finds it unfair “that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin…and Polynesian lives and nothing about how we [i.e. the chemists] transformers of matter live”. Consequently, he desired to write a book containing stories not of “the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying output”, but those of “the solitary chemistry”, which more often than not required of the chemists to fight against the hostility of matter or “hyle”- “an obtuse and slow-moving enemy”- with nothing more than “their brains, hands, reason and imagination.”
Nonetheless, a reader would be quite far off the mark in assuming the book to be a dull, relentless chronicle of a chemist’s frequent failures, sporadically alleviated by either momentary or lasting breakthroughs. In each of the twenty-one chapters, named after different chemical components derived from the Periodic Table, the titular element plays a vital role in catalyzing human interactions which, in turn, are events having the potential to leave unfading impressions on one’s life and memories. As such, these components not only exist in the stories in their elemental forms but also acquire a larger metaphorical and thematic dimension. For instance, in the story, “Zinc”, the unreactivity of pure zinc is symbolically associated with the aloofness of Rita, a fellow student at the Chemical Institute, towards whom Levi felt the youthful stirrings of a nervously amorous attraction. Since zinc can be activated only through addition of an impurity, Rita being a Christian and Levi a Jew, i.e. one of that race of people who during the years leading to World War II were described by the Nazis and the Fascists as being impure, Levi proudly considers himself to be that essentially indispensible impurity,which breaks Rita’s emotional isolation and forms a bond of love.
Similarly, in “Iron” the eponymous metal epitomizes the heroic strength of character of the author’s friend, Sandro Delmastro, who died “fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command.” Furthermore, while in “Gold” the noble metal symbolizes for Levi as a prisoner the infinite possibilities of a life of freedom, in “Tin” the metal highlights the realistic compromises rooted in an often inevitable reconsideration of one’s idealistic vision of a free and adventurous profession. Interestingly, Levi’s training in chemistry also enabled him to survive the ravages of Holocaust in unforeseen ways. For instance, when he worked as a skilled slave labourer in the laboratory of a rubber factory at Buna, he was able to smuggle cerium- required to make flints for cigarette lighters- to barter it for food for himself and his friend, Alberto in the concentration camp.
In addition to these, The Periodic Table stands as a testament to Levi’s passion for storytelling. This is amply exemplified by such fictional tales like “Lead” and “Mercury”, which stand out in the manner of islands in a largely autobiographical narrative. Furthermore, the author seems to have believed in the therapeutic value of the exercise of writing and/or telling stories. He reminisces that after his liberation from Auschwitz at the end of World War II, he had feverishly recorded his experience in a book, namely, If This Is a Man, published in the USA under the title ofSurvival in Auschwitz. Indeed, Levi appears to imply that inventing stories, based on lived experiences, is one of the most effective psychological processes, by which one strives to come to terms with a traumatic past, or gain absolution. Such is the case with Bonino, a Jewish client from Levi’s days as a “Customers’ Service” officer, and Doktor Lothar Müller, the civilian supervisor of the production plant at Buna. While the former frequently narrated a continually updated- and probably fictitious- story that featured him doing a courageous act when captured by the Fascists, the latter seems to have modified his memories related to the concentration camp in an attempt to soothe his guilty conscience.
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a haunting work of nostalgia. Each account has the mellow quality of being viewed through wizened eyes that have seen the highs and lows of life. Indeed, this undying, almost cheerful, spirit of an old man telling his stories is movingly captured in the Yiddish epigraph that opens the volume: “Troubles overcome are good to tell”. Levi’s unpretentious erudition,humour, honesty, lucidity of thought and sincere attachment to the humble things of life- are all of a delicate flavour. So much so that it linger long after the book has been returned to its place on the shelf.
– Aritra Mukherjee