Five words from the blurb: chemist, element, metaphorical, human, society
Primo Levi was an Auschwitz survivor and the majority of his books focused on his experience in the concentration camp. This book is different in that the time in the concentration camp is barely mentioned, but instead we see the importance that chemistry played in his life – from his earliest school boy experiments to the difficulties of dealing with his former captors in a professional capacity. The book is made up of twenty-one short stories, each titled with the name of a different chemical element; each revealing a different aspect of the human condition.
This book is clearly very important, but as a reader I had mixed feelings. It was very hard to start – requiring a dictionary, an enormous amount of patience and a fair bit of googling to understand anything that was happening. It got easier to read as it progressed, but could never be read at any speed greater than a snail’s pace.
As a former chemist I am normally keen to read about science in literature, but I’m afraid that many sections reminded me of doing some tedious chemistry homework. The complete descriptions of various experiments bored me and I found the passion for chemistry a bit too strong.
Perhaps I don’t think deeply enough about things, but I always found distilling to be a frustrating past-time and so a passage like this didn’t connect with me.
The problem/genius of this book is that chemistry is a metaphor for so many different things and spotting the underlying meaning behind can be hard. Levi helps by dropping in a few obvious statements, but I’m sure that a lot of the symbolism went over my head.
This is one of those books that needs to be studied to be fully appreciated. I don’t think that reading it at home, in isolation, will ever reveal the full power of the words. I’m really pleased that I completed the book, but can’t say it was an enjoyable or enlightening experience.
This is my first Primo Levi book, but I suspect that I might enjoy some of his other books more.
Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend?