No, I haven’t suddenly switched teaching subjects – this is a collection of stories by Italian Jewish author Primo Levi. It was recommended to me by James, one of the current crop of PGCE students at school, as a more ‘manly’ read – he was a bit taken aback by the titles being bandied about at the last book group meeting; there were only two guys in the room at the time, however…
The book is a collection of recollections and fiction that are centred around various elements of the peroidic table. Each story is titled by an element, and this element features in the story, even if tangentally. The opening story, ‘Argon’, looks at the properties of inert (‘noble’) gases and compares their properties to those of his ancestors:
The little that I know about my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases. Not all of them were materially inert, for that was not granted them. … But there is no doubt that they were inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion. It can hardly be by chance that all the deeds attributed to them, though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.
These personal, and often tragic, recollections are surprisingly interspersed with fiction: the account of the ancient Scandinavian who travels into continental southern Europe taking with him the secret knowledge of the working and uses of lead; the man living on an island who buys new wives for himself and his companions with refined mercury; the imagined journey of a carbon atom with which the collection ends. Yet I found all of the stories, whether factual or fiction, tinged with sadness. This has undoubtedly to do with the circumstances of his life – Levi survived the Holocaust, but only just – as well as the great burden of knowledge that Jewish people carry; that within living memory, someone hated them enough to try to exterminate their race. Perhaps I am imposing the over-arching sense of tragedy; I have never been able to descibe my feelings about the Holocaust – it just leaves me with an indescribable feelings of loss and sadness. I visited Dachau while on a school trip to Europe in high school, and the idea of the ovens (which looked like large bread ovens to me – ordinary, until you knew what they were used for) still leaves me breathless with horror. I still remember not being able to hear any birds while on the site, despite the warm spring day and the abundance of trees and other foliage around the camp. Perhaps I just blocked them out, but even the most annoying of the kids on the trip were hushed and stunned by the impact of the camp. How much more so for those who lived though it.
Levi does have the ability at times to see through the sadness and fear to some happy times – the meeting of his wife and their marriage are not elaborated on here, but are mentioned as well as an almost-affair with a beautiful goya (non-Jewish woman) – but they too are tinged with self-depreciation. Both he and Guilia (the goya) remember and reminisce about what might-have-been, although his primary feeling over the relationship seems to be one of regret. And the school-days friendship with the ferrous Sandro ends with the story of his death at the hands of the Fascists and their prohibition of the burial of his body; his body was abandoned in the road.
And yet for all this sadness and tragedy, this is a book you should read. It took me longer than usual – it’s not long, but the emotions it stirs gave me pause – but it is good for us to read about things that are disturbing as well as those that are amusing. But this is also a good piece of writing. It allows us to see into a time that most of us know about but don’t understand; that we can’t understand unless we are a member of a persecuted race. And that all these events may have lead to Levi’s death – the coroner ruled that he committed suicide in 1987, although many people believe his death was accidental – adds to the sadness, but also the understanding of the events of this terrible part of the 20th century.