The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Book: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi Read Free Book Online
Authors: Primo Levi
cost anybody anything, and pleased the director, the lieutenant, and myself.
    What, after all, was that chemistry over which the lieutenant and I racked our brains? Water and fire, nothing else, like in the kitchen. A less appetizing kitchen, that’s all: with penetrating or disgusting smells instead of the domestic kind; for the rest, there too aprons, mixing, burned hands, and washing up at the end of the day. No escape for Alida. She listened with devout compunction and at the same time Italian skepticism to my tales of life in Turin: these were heavily censored because in fact both she and I had to play the game of my anonymity. Nevertheless something did emerge: if nothing else, from my reticences themselves. After some weeks I realized that I was no longer a nameless person: I was a certain Doctor Levi who must not be called Levi, neither in the second nor the third person, due to good manners, and in order to avoid a mess. In the mine’s gossipy and easygoing atmosphere, a disparity between my indeterminate state as an outcast and my visible mildness of manner leaped to the eye, and—Alida admitted this to me—was lengthily discussed and variously interpreted: I was everything from an agent of the OVRA, the Fascist secret police, to someone with high-class connections.
    Going down into the valley was uncomfortable, and for me not very prudent; since I could not visit anyone, my evenings at the mine were interminable. Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann’s Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine, all the way up to the brim of the crater, or halfway up on the back of the gray, craggy dump chute, shaken by mysterious creaks and shivers as if some busy gnomes really nested there: the darkness was punctuated by the distant howls of dogs in the invisible valley bottom.
    These roamings granted me a truce from the grim awareness of my father dying in Turin, of the American defeats at Bataan, the German victories in the Crimea, in short, of the open trap which was about to spring shut: it gave birth in me to a new bond, more sincere than the rhetoric about nature learned at school, with those brambles and stones which were my island and my freedom, a freedom I would perhaps soon lose.
    For that rock without peace I felt a fragile and precarious affection: with it I had contracted a double bond, first in the exploits with Sandro, then here, trying as a chemist to wrest away its treasure. From this rocky love and these asbestos-filled solitudes, on some other of those long nights were born two stories of islands and freedom, the first I felt inclined to write after the torments of compositions in liceo: one story fantasized about a remote precursor of mine, a hunter of lead instead of nickel; the other, ambiguous and mercurial, I had taken from a reference to the island of Tristan da Cunha that I happened to see during that period.
    The lieutenant, who was doing his military service in Turin, came up to the mine only one day a week. He would check my work and give me instructions and advice for the coming week, and proved to be an excellent chemist and a tenacious and acute researcher. After a short period of orientation, alongside the routine of daily analyses, a project with much higher aims began to take shape.
    In the mine’s rock there was indeed nickel, but very little: from our analyses it showed an average content of 0.2 percent. Ridiculous, in comparison to the minerals mined by my antipodal colleague-rivals in Canada and New Caledonia. But perhaps the raw material could be enriched? Under the lieutenant’s guidance I tried all possible methods: by magnetic separation, by flotation, by levigation, by sifting, with heavy liquids, with the shaking plate. I

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