Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

I had heard The Periodic Table described as a holocaust memoir couched in the viewpoint of the periodic table. Fitting images are not hard to imagine: the gold of rings and teeth, the carbon of human smoke. But, Primo Levi had, it turns out, already devoted two books to his time inside Auschwitz. Here he presents something more general and more universal. This book encompasses the majority of Levi's life, before and after the war, most of it spent in science. His time in Auschwitz is here given only a single chapter. That of Cerium, telling the story of some cerium rods, a metal which emits sparks when struck, that Levi stole from the chemistry lab he was forced to work at while interned at the camp. He shaped the rods at night in his bunk, a process that risked death through fire or detection, then sold them as flints for black market lighters. The profits kept him feed through the final months in the camps.

Each of the books other twenty chapters similarly revolve around a single element and a time in the authors life connected to that element. Either literally, as that of cerium or when he was employed extracting nickel from the waste rock of an asbestos mine, or symbolically, like when he uses Argon to describe the Jewish community he grew up in, comparing the noble gasses unreactive nature, it exists everywhere as part of air but never binds with any part of the world, to the communities insular nature.

Many of these chapters take a surprisingly deep look into the true complexities of working with these elements. The difficulty in separating nickel or the surprisingly costly task of acquiring chicken shit in the hopes of extracting nitrogen. These real life science stories intertwine with his more politically oriented autobiographical reminiscences, and it may seem like a strange combination: in depth examinations of chemistry problems wedded to ruminations on growing up under the looming specter of fascism, the formative year spent trapped in its nightmarish culmination, and attempting to reconstruct a life afterward. But, for Levi, these things are not separate. They are intimately connected, both inside his own life and philosophically. Science, Levi tells us, is a natural antidote to fascism. By its nature, that of eternally seeking truth, choosing the hard, ego crushing path of acquiescing to material reality instead of giving in to idealistic fantasy, science will always offer a silent rebuttal to the empty rhetoric of fascism.