Book Review: The Periodic Table
To some memoirists, a photo or a song may open memory’s flood gates, but for Primo Levi, a chemist by trade, it is the elements that evoke memories of life as a working chemist, the encroaching anti-Semitism, and then later his captivity by the Nazis.
Surprisingly, Levi’s The Periodic Table is not a book of science. The table of contents would suggest otherwise with 21 elements making up 21 separate chapters, made up of 19 essays and two short stories. It is, however, an exploration of the past connected through stories that relate to the elements allegorically.
In the opening chapter, Argon, he writes vignettes of his uncles and aunts. He describes Uncle Barbarico, for example, as noble, rare, and inert, befitting the characteristics of Argon “like a glove.” Levi understood that stories like his uncle’s are important and although he may not have achieved greatness on the world stage, there are lessons that we can still learn from his life. Levi wrote that at end of his Barbarico’s life, he “ate almost nothing, and in general way he had no needs; he died at over ninety, with discretion and dignity.” Even though the was written in 1975, before the popularity of memoirs of non-celebrities, Levi was already aware that everyone has a unique story to tell.
One of the most extraordinary chapters is Silver, where he confronts a former concentration camp guard, Muller, particularly known for his cruelty. Instead of exacting revenge as Edmond Dantes, the main protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’s canon, would have done (“I am not the Count of Montecristo”), Levi writes that he “did not feel capable of representing the dead of Auschwitz, not did it seem sensible to see Muller the representative of butchers.”
The chapters are also in chronological order, beginning with his decision to study chemistry in his youth. Indeed, Levi’s in the chapter Hydrogen, he writes, “For me, chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come back in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai…I was fed up with books, which I still continued to gulp down with indiscreet voracity, and search for another key to the highest truths.” He confronts his painful past head on and reveals the universal themes of forgiveness and redemption, friendships, purity and impurity (“Chemistry and physics…were the antidote to Fascism…because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lie and emptiness.”) and unrequited love because of the growing policy of racial segregation (“To carry on your crossbar a girl you desire and be so far from her as not to be able to even fall in love with her”) among others.
Recalling memories through writing plays a prominent role in the book. In Chromium, after being released from captivity of three months, he felt that writing would cleanse him: “I would be purified if I told its story, and I felt like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune.” Moreover, even with his “baggage of atrocious memories,” writing made him feel like a regular person: “By writing, I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again, a person like everyone else, neither a martyr nor debased nor a saint: one of those people who form a family and look the future rather than the past.”
It was through writing then that he “was growing like a planet.” It was no wonder then that the last chapter is Carbon, the element of all life.