Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Book: The Periodic Table

Author: Primo Levi

Details: (c) 1975 Giulio Einaudi; translated by Raymond Rosenthal 1984; Pub Everyman's Library 1995; ISBN 1-85715-218-2

Verdict: The Periodic Table is uplifting and educational as well as seriously uncomfortable in places

Reasons for reading it: As a well-read Jewish scientist, I can't very well not read Levi. I've been putting off reading him out of cowardice about his subject matter; I do intend to read If this is a man at some point, but not yet.

How it came into my hands: Library

Reading The Periodic Table is in some ways a similar experience to reading Anne Frank's diary; it shifts one's perspective from genocide and the killing of unimaginably vast numbers of people to the suffering inflicted on a particular individual, who happens to be talented and personable. Also like the diary, the worst horrors of the actual concentration camps are in the background rather than explicitly described.

There are some really lovely stories in this collection; the opening story, Argon, endeared me completely by discussing the linguistic history of the Judeo-Piedmontese dialect spoken by Levi's family. Throughout, Levi evokes characters and situations amazingly well while being sparing with words, which I appreciate. And the final story, Carbon, is just ducky; it's a discussion of biochemistry from the perspective of the days when it was still bio-chemistry. I was quite struck by the stuff that Levi considers practically beyond the bounds of human endeavour, but which was well within the scope of my undergraduate course some 20 years after this collection was published (though I understand Carbon is based very heavily on a much earlier story, to be fair).

Although Levi himself admits that The Periodic Table is not really intended as popular science, it does work quite well on that level. It does a good job of conveying the experience of being a scientist, as well as some scientific information.

Then there is Vanadium, which describes a chance meeting in a professional context between Levi and someone who had been his overseer when he worked as a slave labourer in Nazi Germany some years before. Levi is asked to judge this low-grade minor cog in the Nazi machinery, and in doing so almost judges himself. He does not take the emotionally easy route of casting himself as a victim (although he was in fact a victim of Nazism by any reasonable definition of the word). I'm going to quote extensively because no paraphrase could do this justice:

I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is, honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; and therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

I am not arrogant enough to claim that I can either avoid the accusation or fully face up to it, but there it is.

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