Sunday, June 2, 2013

Primo Levi

Already a well known classic, this book needs no introduction.

Primo Levi trained as a chemist in Fascist Italy, and managed moments of a career despite his Jewish ethnicity before being removed to a Nazi concentration camp. He has written about his time at Auschwitz elsewhere, but this book includes a couple stories from the camp also.

The main narrative, however, recounts his professional career as a chemist, most of which involves paints and varnishes. As the title hints, Levi provides a tour of different elements: carbon, silver, mercury, lead, etc. "Matter," he reminds us, the building blocks of life, which in the ancient stories the gods breathes with "spirit," giving life.

As so it is with Levi, storyteller. He breathes life into the inanimate, rejoices in the human spirit, even as he reminds readers of the horrors humans can inflict on one another and their world.

Levi writes in an after-the-catastrophe tone. He is writing at the end of his career, and also decades after "the camp," and he presents a narrator both weary and alert with curiosity. The narrator takes a teaching tone, recounting the particulars of each element, but not a pedantic tone. He knows what he knows and he also outlines what is unknown. There is a persistent moderation, recalling that other scientist, Artistotle, and "the mean."

It's a tone our tabloid culture finds hard to replicate or embrace, even. What a pity.

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